Title: Slant Six

Author: Sue McCauley

In: Sport 28: Autumn 2002

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, March 2002, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 28: Autumn 2002

Sue McCauley — Slant Six

page 184

Sue McCauley

Slant Six

He sat for a long time, that night I met him, on the edge of things. A few people drifted to talk to him. Once I would have been among them, worried that he might feel excluded. The instinct arose but I pushed it aside, telling myself in a Phil kind of voice, You're not responsible for the human race. You are not God, you are only Louise.

I've been doing my best to keep that thought in mind. Phil promised a feeling of lightness and joy, and I'm sure that will come as soon as I've learnt to deal with the guilt.

The guilt is, of course, totally irrational. It's not as if I was brought up Catholic. It took Phil years and years to get beyond all that nonsense. Guilt is inextricably tied to the notion of original sin. Protestants, not being brainwashed into considering themselves personally responsible for the human condition, are saved the burden of abstract guilt.

When Phil first explained this I told him it sounded like a rather Catholic view of things. And besides, what about me? I was never a Catholic. Not even a Protestant. I was nothing, not even agnostic since that seemed to imply some kind of position. Heathen I'd allow, it sounded staunch.

‘Staunch!’ Phil squeaked. ‘Is that how you see yourself?’ He began grinning up at the ceiling, savouring this evidence of my capacity for self-delusion.

‘What about me?’ I reminded. ‘If you're so right, how come I'm … you know …?’

‘A mug.’

‘Socially responsible.’

‘A pushover.’ He shrugged. ‘Maybe you were Catholic in a previous life.’

Anyway, back to Dee's barbecue and my eventual meeting with Chip. Chip! I tried to constrain a very Protestant grin but he must have seen it.

page 185

‘I gather that, in this country, it is considered a stupid name.’ Except he said stoopid. His voice was straight off a red-neck country album.

‘Well,’ I consoled him, ‘at least it's not Randy.’

‘Randy is worse?’

‘Depends,’ I said.

‘Depends on what?’

‘Don't go there,’ said Dee who was suddenly with us. She was shaking her head in warning or disbelief and behind my back her fingers nudged a signal that I wasn't sure how to read.

Her mouth said to me, ‘So, down South tomorrow. You all packed up and ready? Bet you can't wait.’ She was smirking. Her hip whacked mine. ‘You know what they say about hunger being the best sauce.’

‘It's not that long,’ I began to object.

A hand reached past my ear and handed Dee the cordless phone. She pressed it against her bristled head, squinting, then moved away. I was left with Chip, and the little-boy smile he'd worn all night. Only now it might be there on account of my sex life. Certainly it seemed to have widened.

‘Down south?’ he said. ‘Would that be—’

‘Queenstown? Nope.’

‘Why'd you say that? You guessed I was going to ask for a ride.’

‘You weren't?’

‘Maybe. But did I say I was going to Queenstown?’

‘It was your shades,’ I told him.

‘My glasses? What's wrong with my glasses? They happen to be very expensive.’ And he took them off the better to examine them in the blueish glow of Dee's garden lighting.

His eyelashes were like tassels caught in a breeze. They caused me to reconsider the rest of him. Long legs in buff-coloured cargos slung fashionably low, a black T-shirt that said, in writing so small you had to be up close, I think therefore I think I am. Black and green trainers, almost new.

‘That's what I mean,’ I said. ‘And also, if you hadn't noticed, it's dark.’

page 186

‘And that's okay in Queenstown but not in Christchurch? Is that what you're saying?’

Dense or just American? I don't want to sound prejudiced, but they're just not good at making connections. They like the conversational path to be clearly marked, with edges or, better, a handrail. Who hasn't noticed? They grow anxious over anything left to the imagination. You see it on TV—the way they'll snatch up a sentence and dissect it without having even considered it as a whole. As if the way the words hung together was of no significance.

‘Am I right? Is that what you're telling me?’

‘Something like that,’ I mumbled. Whatever I'd said, and already I couldn't remember, it wasn't intended for analysis or the Oxford Book of Quotations.

‘I thought I'd stick to the coast,’ he said. ‘Dunedin. Have I got that correct? Yeah? And that's the route you're taking?’

My nod was infinitesimal. The kind of nod that could not be mistaken for an invitation.

‘Well there's a coincidence.’

I nodded again, taking steps backwards until the words on his T-shirt were just a ragged white smear. He raised his voice.

‘How are you travelling?’

‘Car,’ I said. ‘My boyfriend's.’ And I turned away to hide my delight at having won simply by telling the truth.

Chip came after me. ‘Would he mind? Your boyfriend? One extra passenger. Shall I ask him? Is he here?’

‘Is who here?’ Min's glance slid across me and on to Chip. Over jeans she was wearing an old red petticoat with sagging lace. The kind of look Phil hated.

‘Her boyfriend,’ Chip said.

‘He's in Dunedin,’ Min said.

‘Ah,’ said Chip.

‘She's going down to be with him. First thing in the morning.’

‘Okay,’ Chip said to me. ‘I get it. You're driving his car.’

‘Thanks very much,’ I told Min. She looked confused

It was Chip who caught on. So much for national stereotyping!

‘You want to travel alone,’ he said. ‘That's cool. I understand.’

page 187

‘It's not that,’ I said too quickly. For it was exactly that. It was three years since rust had taken my little old Mazda. I could have replaced her but, as Phil pointed out, there wasn't much point. Public transport was cheaper and better for the planet and, if I needed a car, there was his.

I didn't need one—except, sometimes, in the weekends when Phil would be there to drive me. Then he went off to do his year on section at Windmouth High School and the car, of course, went with him. So it was, you could say, a bit of luck for me when the old guy in the van backed into it. Hit the wrong pedal and wham, right there in my local Pak 'N Save car park with seven people who immediately offered their names as witnesses.

Phil had to go back on the shuttle. He was gutted, actually. He'd just got the tape deck fixed and on the way to Pak 'N Save he'd brought two talking books: Mansfield Park and Gormenghast. Just for the pleasure of re-acquaintance.

There had been a delay over parts and a complication concerning insurance, but I'd finally got to collect the car that morning. The thought of looking over the wheel at the open road, my feet massaging the pedals, brought a certain taste to my mouth. It was a kind of thirst but I thought of it as greediness. I was so greedy to get on that road I was salivating.

I'd spent the previous evening taping Greg Brown. Three tapes would get me there. Nearly five hours of captivation.

‘You don't trust me?’ Chip was saying. ‘I understand. Why should you? I could be some kind of crazy man.’

I shook my head, compelled (by some forgotten but pious existence?) to reassure. ‘I'm … not definitely going. Not tomorrow … it depends on … a number of things.’

‘No worries,’ said Chip. ‘Another day or so is fine with me. I don't have a schedule.’ He delved in a kneeside pocket and produced a flashy ballpoint. ‘I'll take down the number and give you a call first thing tomorrow to see what gives. If that's okay?’

He wrote my phone number on his inner arm which was unexpectedly pale. I could have rearranged a couple of digits but I told myself no worries he'd shower first thing and that would be that.

page 188

And anyway it was easy to lie on the phone. Trip's off, I'd say, I've changed my mind.

Later that night Phil rang. I must leave early to beat the traffic. Had I checked the tent pegs? Had I remembered the gas bottle? I should ask for an extra couple of days.

‘Stuff the job,’ he said. ‘You don't even like it, and there's heaps of things you could do down here.

‘You know what I mean,’ he said. ‘The negativity thing. Don't do this Lou, don't do this to yourself.’

Phil was wanting us to live together on a forever basis. He wanted a baby, maybe two or three babies. These weren't things he'd cared about when we lived together but distance had allowed him to see life more clearly.

Chip was waiting on the footpath outside the hostel. Beside him was a serious backpack and a bulging flax kete. It was necessary to rearrange the contents of the boot—the camping gear, the carton of essential grocery items, my small suitcase of clothes. I'd left the ignition on; Greg was singing his '64 Dodge song. Chip, I thought, will like this. He'll relate!

Chip offered to drive. ‘No way!’ I roared.

‘Hey, I only meant—if you get tired.’

He folded himself into the passenger seat, then adjusted it back so far he was almost behind me. He could pull out a gun and I wouldn't know until I felt cold steel against my neck. Right away he began to tell me about Rotorua. ‘I've been there,’ I said but it didn't deter him.

Just past Templeton I adjusted the sound dial upwards and pointedly hummed along. Chip's voice just grew louder. Near Rolleston there was a momentary pause and I took advantage. ‘I love this man,’ I said. ‘You know him? He's from … I think it's Minneapolis, somewhere like that.’

‘I don't know a single person from Minneapolis.’

‘I meant did you know of him. He writes these fabulous songs. He's a poet, then also he's got this voice that is just so …’

‘Country,’ said Chip. ‘Willie Nelson and stuff. I know country. page 189 Can't say I'm actually a fan or anything. But my aunt, now, she has this shop …’

We were now clear of the satellite towns and also the low cloud that pressed down on the city like a migraine. Now it was all blue skies and clouds like skittering tufts of sheep's wool. I'd packed the wrong sort of clothes. I'd spend the week sweating and fanning, definitively uncool. If I was alone I could have turned around and gone home to repack. The dashboard clock said 10:43 and there wasn't another vehicle in sight. So much for needing to beat the traffic.

‘Shall I tell you about the girl I left behind?’ said Chip.

‘No,’ I told him.

That cracked him up. ‘I love the way you came out with that. Shall I tell … NO. That cracks me up. Just for that I am gonna tell you.’ And he turned Greg down.

He turned Greg down. Reached out from behind me—a long freckled arm—and muted Greg Brown right in the middle of ‘Lately’.

Why had I agreed to his coming? Why, despite common sense and various totally rational reservations, had I turned myself into a public transport service?

My mother once told me (preparing the ground for Phil) that I was either a fool or an optimist. Her tone of voice implied that they were both the same thing. I knew lots of people who would agree with her—Phil was one of them. And I could see that there were benefits and protections in thinking like that, which is why I was trying to change. But I didn't want, ever, to believe that hope and random acts of kindness were evidence of personal defects or the number of sandwiches available to be eaten outdoors.

It was true that, shortly after that phone conversation with Phil, a very brief movie had flashed past my mind's eye. And, in that movie, Phil was waiting outside the house where he rents the sleep-out, and I pulled up. And there alongside me in the passenger seat, all long legs and classy shades, was Chip. Close up of Phil's face. To be continued …

But, concerning Chip, the main thing was it seemed unreasonable not to take him. I had seats to spare, Chip had a journey to make, and page 190 the planet was running out of resources.

As I detoured into town to pick him up it seemed to make good sense. I thought of myself as a kind Kiwi and that gave me a little glow of pride. I thought of myself as belonging to a nation full of intrinsically decent people. Okay, perhaps a nation full of insecure people who want to be liked. Is that so bad?

Then people like Chip come along and take advantage, not even aware that that's what they're doing. It's a matter of type and perceptions. Kiwis come in small print with plenty of space for whatever's between the lines, while Yanks are all bold typeface and everything there on the page, spelt out in big letters.

I wanted to whip the red and orange cap right off Chip's head, ball it up and shove it down his throat. I wanted to bundle him into the boot with his designer backpack. Yet it wasn't his fault, nor was it mine.

I could pull over and say, ‘Chip, get out, piss off, I'm not gonna hear about your girlfriend.’

‘Why?’ he'd say. ‘What's wrong? Don't you like me? Have you no interest in other people's stories? I'm telling you that's a sad way to be. I wouldn't've taken you for that kind of person. Not for a minute.’

And, since it felt like I'd had that conversation already, I couldn't stand to go through it again.

We crossed the Rakaia Bridge with Greg still reduced to a sibilant whisper; I couldn't even pick up which songs I was missing. Chip was onto the ex-girlfriend's stepfather's purebred wolves. I had to shout above him. ‘This,’ I hollered, ‘is the longest bridge in New Zealand.’

My impression was that Chip had, so far, barely glanced out the window. Okay, the immediate countryside was kind of flat and featureless, but look to the right and there were the Alps, blue-grey with distance and sprinkled with fresh snow. The guy was a tourist for godsake, it was his duty to look.

The wolf story faltered. ‘That right?’ said Chip, and actually heaved his body towards the window to look down at the riverbed. At the tangled pattern of rivulet channels all of them dry, dry, dry, though it was not yet summer. ‘How long is this bridge then?’

page 191

‘I've no idea.’

‘Approximately how long?’

‘It probably says. If you keep an eye out.’

But already he had lost interest. In the bridge and also the wolves.

‘I was maybe too old for her. I guess that was it. She was only just seventeen.’ He paused, and I could feel his eyes on my neck, waiting for a response, or at least a reaction. He was proud of seventeen.

‘There are more long bridges to come,’ I said. ‘This is wide river country.’ I wondered if that had ever been used as a song title. I could send it to Greg, but perhaps he would think it cheesy. The thing about Greg Brown—the thing that I loved most of all was, listen to any song on any album and you just knew that this was a man who believed in hope and random acts of kindness.

‘Seen one river,’ said Chip, patting his pockets, ‘you've seen 'em all.’

When he held out a packet of gum, I shook my head. I wanted to chew, my mouth felt like an unwashed tea towel, but even one piece of gum might compromise the purity of my dislike.

What was I thinking? One pellet of gum compared to around 400 km of travel. Who ought to be feeling indebted? But perhaps he would put in for petrol when I stopped to fill up? I should've made that a condition, right from the outset, but you kind of hope people will offer. That way it's nicer. That way you can both feel good about it.

Truth was I didn't want him to offer. If he did I might even refuse. I wanted to seethe and press my foot down a little harder. Get the trip over and done with.

‘What's this place? Are we coming into a city? Are we?’

‘No, Chip. A town. That was it, we're now on the way out.’

‘I thought you know … outer suburbs. You got a roadmap?’


‘Hey, come on, you gotta have a roadmap!’

‘You're the one who doesn't know where he's going—why don't you have a roadmap.’

‘I'm not the driver. If I was driving I'd'a stopped off and got me a roadmap.’

page 192

It was round about then, as we were leaving Ashburton, I first noticed the smell. Freezing works, I thought, or something industrial. But it seemed to be travelling with us. A fart. Which explained why Chip had failed to remark on it. Silent and violent, as we said at primary school. Chewing gum does that, I've noticed; fills you with air. He must, surely, be mortified. I bit back a grin.

‘I will have a gum,’ I said. The stink felt like some kind of authorisation.

‘Got some bad news,’ said Chip. ‘There was only three bits left and they're in my mouth. Ha ha ha.’

I wished I'd been nicer to that grin, kept it hanging around. The smell was still there. I was shallow breathing.

‘Tell you what,’ said Chip. Next gas station we stop I'll buy you a packet. How far d'you reckon to the next gas station? There was one just back there a way, if you want to turn round?’

‘Don't worry,’ I told him, ‘I can live without.’

It seemed that the smell was subsiding. I turned up the volume. Greg was likening modern love to a loaded gun. Phil wasn't a fan. In his book Greg Brown was a Luddite who had penned a couple of decent tunes and dozens of deeply depressing lyrics. But Greg sang on and Chip showed no sign of becoming depressed. He began to whistle, though not at all tunefully.

‘You recognise that? A hummingbird. You familiar with the hummingbird?’

‘Only the movie, with Gregory Peck.’ The clock said we'd been travelling less than an hour. Not even a quarter of the way.

The smell had returned, even stronger, yet still he said nothing. He'd gone silent so now I felt sorry for him. I suffered, on his behalf, the random, clenching agony of a dodgy gut. I looked out for trees that he could crouch behind. Worried about how far to a public toilet.

Why did he still say nothing? Wisps of mist were drifting past the side window. Out of the bonnet. The arrow on the heat gauge had left H way behind.

This is a wonderful country. In the forty minutes we spent on the verge of the highway, four drivers stopped with offers of help. The page 193 first gave us water for the radiator. A one-litre bottle of ‘Sparkling Spring Water’ with the seal unbroken.

‘We can't take that,’ protested Chip.

‘Yes we can,’ I said, snatching it up.

I offered to pay for it but the owner refused, he was peering down at the volcanic engine. ‘You will wait till it's cool,’ he said. ‘Won't you?’

‘He thought we were real dumb,’ said Chip resentfully as the man drove off.

‘I wonder why!’ I snapped. My anger was at myself—how could I have let this happen? I was the kind of driver who kept an eye on her dials.

The second would-be-Samaritans were heading for Dunedin with empty seats in the back. ‘You go,’ I begged Chip. But he wouldn't—he just couldn't—leave a woman alone on the highway. The couple entirely agreed.

Chip used his cap to open the radiator, even though I kept saying wait. A blast of steam and Chip leapt back but not quite fast enough. We poured the Sparkling Spring water on the scalded arm. We had no option, it was all that we had. The open radiator was repeatedly groaning and billowing up water and steam. ‘Like Rotorua,’ said Chip. ‘Even the smell.’

My mind kept escaping back to before Ashburton when life was so much better than I'd given it credit for.

A raisin-faced old guy with a vanload of kids pulled up. He crossed the road shaking his head. ‘Never should take off the cap, not till it cools. And the ignition—gotta keep it running. Never should'a switched it off.’ His eyes rested redly, but not unkindly, on Chip. ‘Didncha know that?’

‘I wasn't the driver,’ said Chip. His cheeks had flushed up. ‘If I'd been the driver we wouldn't be sitting here now.’

I reached for the keys. ‘So I should turn it on?’

‘I'd say so.’ He looked from me to Chip and back again; he thought we were a couple. The thought appalled me. I had just cooked Phil's motor and there I was worrying about a stranger thinking Chip was my boyfriend.

page 194

I turned on the key and the motor started at once which seemed like a good sign. Greg's voice leapt out to stroll the flat paddocks. I began to feel a little better.

Chip had thrown himself down on the grass and was examining his scalded arm. I thanked the man for his kindness in having stopped, and for his advice, and he waggled his head and walked back to the van full of kids. Then he walked back again with a couple of two-litre plastic containers full of water.

‘Still far too hot.’ He put the containers beside the bumper and stared at the engine.

‘What d'you think?’ I asked.

He shrugged. ‘Might be lucky.’

The kids waved as they drove off. Occasional puffs of steam still popped from the radiator. Smoke signals.

‘People are good about helping.’ I meant, in this country. I meant, unlike people in your country.

Chip missed the point. ‘Yeah. Most people are kind enough.’

‘So they'll pick you up. If you start walking one of those kind enough people will pick you up.’

‘My pack's too heavy for walking.’

‘So sit beside it and thumb.’

He stretched. ‘I'm in no hurry.’

I went for a walk and practised saying Go away. You're not my problem. You're not getting back in that car. Beneath the grass the ground was pitted from the early spring floods. No trees, not even a gorse bush where I could squat to pee. I kept looking around to see what Chip was doing. Did he see my speed, the anger that propelled me? Those driving past would think, with satisfaction, that we'd had a fight.

Between one backward glance and the next, Chip had climbed into the driver's seat. How far would he get before the motor seized? I began walking backwards so I could watch. I was philosophical about this next link in the day's chain of events. The sun was now beating down and in the paddock across the road the lambs glowed so white as to seem phosphorescent.

There was a shattering blast of radio, which was quickly adjusted page 195 downwards. Greg had been exchanged for an overexcited DJ. I turned around again and walked until Phil's car was reduced to a Tonka toy and the DJ was no more than a wasp's intermittent buzzing.

There was a song on that Greg Brown tape about a woman with a ‘slant six mind’. The words thrown in without explanation as if ‘slant six’ was an expression people used all the time.

‘I've been so slant six this morning.’

‘Yeah, me too.’

How come I hadn't heard of it?

As I was walking back Chip began to tip water into the radiator. It gasped and hurled the water straight back. Chip tried again. The same. Again he raised the container. ‘I think it's too soon,’ I called.

‘Not too soon. It's coming right.’

He was a man and men knew these things. I watched while he poured in all the remaining water. ‘It's keeping it down,’ he said, like a new father. ‘I think we'll be right.’

We peered into the metal throat. The water had disappeared. No sign of leakage, so it had to be in there. The needle on the gauge was still up past H. I pointed this out.

‘Yeah,’ said Chip. ‘Not working. I'd say it never was.’

And so would I, now the thought had been planted.

‘We'll be right now.’ He screwed on the cap. He'd had enough of waiting. ‘How far to the nearest gas station?’

I had no idea. The DJ was inviting his listeners to guess the colour of his pubic hair. I replaced him with Greg, and drove slowly, looking out for a signpost. The sun roof was open and our windows were down. Chip threw back his head and sang, ‘OooooOO Oklahoma where the wind …’

He knew all the words, they'd done it at school and he was, like, Howard Keel. He sang with his mouth open so wide that, just glancing, you saw his epiglottis. It looked clitoral, which made me think rather warmly of Phil. Sex wasn't exactly his strong suit but there was enough there to miss.

Thinking of Phil lead to thinking of what Phil wanted. Babies and stuff. Now, because of the radiator and everything, it seemed inevitable. He'd be seriously upset and I'd be wanting to cheer him page 196 up. And who was to say those kind of decisions were never the right ones?

At the service station two overalled men and Chip hung over the motor, staring and poking. They made sounds of lament, not for me but for the car.

I heard Chip say, ‘It belongs to her boyfriend.’ They poured in water and it piddled out again onto the concrete. Halfway up the radiator was a hole the size of a walnut. There's your problem, they said.

They wouldn't hazard a guess as to the damage done. Most likely the head and also the gaskets. If I just took it round to the workshop …

The mechanic scratched his ear and said he couldn't tell until he had it apart. And today they were knocking off early but, if we were lucky, they might have time to take look at it for us.

‘For me,’ I corrected but my heart wasn't in it. I could very easily have cried. I asked if there was somewhere I could wait. I said it wasn't my car and I needed to get hold of the owner to see what he wanted.

Chip had gone back to the service station shop. I followed him to say he should take his pack out of the car. He said, hey, he was in no rush, and anyway deserting a damsel in distress was the last thing he'd do. I barely protested, at least he was a familiar face.

The public bar was the only one open. The bar people—a man and a woman—were wearing satin. Crimson and scarlet, green and lemon. They could have been clowns or Spanish dancers—the cringe-making small-town version. A gimmick to bring in the tourists? If so it wasn't working. Apart from me the only person in the bar was a tubby man in checked red and brown trousers. He was setting up a portable organ. I asked him if there was a phone and he pointed me to it.

It was in an alcove. The kind of phone that won't tell you the price until you've dialled the number. I went back to the bar to get an assortment of coins and Chip was there with a huge ice cream running away on him.

I said, ‘There might be a bus. Or a shuttle. If you ask.’

‘Lou,’ he said, ‘What kind of a swine do you take me for?’

page 197

The kind who buys just one ice cream. But what I said was, ‘Suit yourself.’

The señorita changed my note for coins. I told her my car had broken down, hoping for sympathy, but none was offered. Around her armpits the satin was dark with perspiration.

I got through to the receptionist at Phil's school, and asked her to take an urgent message. Instead she went off to look for him while I fed in coins and watched them devalue.

She returned. ‘He's in class.’

I gave her the message. I said it was very important that he ring me at … ‘This phone,’ I shouted to the amigos. ‘What's the number?’

Of course they didn't know. Had I looked on the side?

I looked on both sides. I looked underneath. I fed in more coins. ‘Your number then? The hotel number?’

They appeared not to hear me. The man at the organ played some chords. ‘One minute,’ I shouted into the receiver and let it drop. I ran to the bar and searched for a phone. I ran back to the alcove mouthing the number in case it escaped me. Five seconds to spare. ‘Hello, the number is 03 7865 990.’ Or was it 7856 990. The call was cut off.

I returned to the bar for more coins. I got the señor to write the number down. The organist was playing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. Chip sang along as he fed the poker machine.

This time the phone at the school was engaged. Three more tries and I got through. The receptionist was terse. The bar room was filling up.

I bought a lager and took it outside to the solitary plastic table. It was even hotter outside. The car park was crowded with utes and 4WD wagons. Men with their sleeves rolled up—a few with women as well—hurried inside. You could tell they'd spruced up by the damp furrows in the hair and the fold marks in the jeans.

Soon the bar was packed, and this was a weekday afternoon. It appeared that the farming sector was doing rather better than it let on. In snatches, beneath the buzz and cackle, I could hear the organ playing ‘The Happy Wanderer’. I wondered if Chip knew the words.

Had we stumbled into some local celebration—a birthday or farewell? The bar staff would be too busy to take Phil's call. They may page 198 not even hear it ring. Or they'd answer but not come looking.

I quickly drained my glass and stepped inside, easing my way between checked shirts and plaid shirts. A familiar face—the mechanic. He gave me a nod. He'd changed out of his overalls. He saw the question on my face and shook his head, not yet.

Beyond the organ going tralalee tralala was the sound of coins tumbling out of a poker machine. People craning to see as they would for a car smash or a rugby try.

I reached the bar. ‘Afternoon, love,’ said the man on my right, making room. ‘Enjoying yourself?’ Above the bar counter the satin sleeves were flashing semaphores; I'd be waiting a while.

‘Shaping up,’ my new friend said—I thought he said—in a cheerful voice. He was looking past me, over to where the coins were still tumbling. He turned back. ‘Where you from then?’


‘What, love?’ he pressed closer. An ear tufted with ginger hair.

I shouted. ‘Christchurch.’

The coins came to a halt.

‘Passing through, are you?’

‘Sort of.’ I peered over the bar. The phone was still there.

He swung his refilled jug over my head without spilling a drop. ‘See you again.’

‘Just ginger ale,’ I told the señor.

He upturned a glass. ‘Who are you backing?’


‘The Cup.’ He stabbed a thumb towards the screen set high in the corner. A jockey adjusting his stirrup, then back to the studio commentator, the one with the cleft chin. ‘Fifteen minutes and they're off.’

The Melbourne Cup. But of course. He was not a señor but a pretend jockey and I was trapped in this bar with a horde of punters. Not that I'd have wanted to lay a bet. Something told me it wasn't my lucky day. When the organist graunched into ‘Luck be a Lady’, I knew it for sure.

As I reached for my glass I caught sight of Chip leaning across the other end of the bar, waving for my attention. We both leaned forward. page 199 ‘Wadda y'know. I just won me two hundred and forty smackeroos. How bout that!’

I ground out a smile. Ever since I'd been in this place thoughts of money had been whining away in my brain. How much would a radiator cost? How much for a head? And a gasket, or rings and a valve grind? It may not be all my fault, but I would have to offer to pay at least half. What with?

Chip burrowed and shoved his way towards me.

‘So what gives?’ he demanded.

I must've looked blank.

‘You and the slant six motor car—what's the story?’

‘Slant six?’

‘Joking,’ he said.

‘You know what it means?’

‘It means … you know, grunty. I think you'd say souped-up. So what's the story? We hitting the road or what?’

The race had started. Around us the crowd grew silent. Just the commentator doing his thing.

‘I'm dealing with it,’ I told Chip. ‘I'm onto it. Soon as anything breaks I'll let you know.’

I patted him on the shoulder as if we were buddies. But inside me something—some I ntestinal equivalent of a bra strap—snapped. I actually felt it go ping, and then the relief.

While everyone else, Chip included, was watching that high-slung screen, I walked out of the pub and up the empty street to the garage. I unlocked the boot of Phil's car and dragged out the designer backpack with matching tent and bedroll. I sorted some foot and a change of clothes and I gathered my tapes. Then I dredged in the glove box for a pen and wrote a note on the back of an eftpos slip.

Dear Phil, it said. I seem to be Protestant.