Sport 36: Winter 2008
They journeyed north. They crossed the vast frayed rope of the Waimak, long ago flung across the limey wash of the plains and left to ravel and unravel with each rainfall. Like a splayed hand, the woman thought, many-fingered, pressed into the soil. They marvelled at the open throat of the gorge, steep-sided and smooth-lipped and lifeless, nothing green, only gravel and water and sky. They left the bridge and turned a corner. They considered the sealed and the unsealed option, and the man chose unsealed. He craved the dusty breath of the gravel on his face and the rasping slip of the stones beneath his tyres.
They came to a ford. He did not care to get in and test the depth. His song was playing anyhow, and the chorus had come. He nosed the car into the water and drove on.
The speakers weren't the best. His song had sounded better other times. The chorus had moved him more deeply, other times.
'We've hit a pothole,' he said.
They felt an underwater thump and the hot-water scream of the tyres on the pebbles, and then the motor gave a sickly shudder and died.
'I don't think it counts as a pothole if it's in the middle of a river,' she said.
'Ford,' he said. 'It's not technically a river, where we are here.'
'Rubbish,' she said.
'It's true,' he said. 'Same as you wouldn't say you were on land if you were on a bridge. You wouldn't say you were in the middle of a river if you were crossing at a ford.'
'That's ridiculous,' she said. 'Who would say you were on land if you were on a bridge? Nobody would say that.'
'That's exactly my point,' he said. 'I think that we're in the middle of a river, Harry,' she said.page 26
'We're crossing at a ford. Fiona,' he said.
Fiona gave a little hiccup of a laugh and waved a hand at the rush of the river, flowing greasily toward them and diverting at the last possible instant around the flank of the car. The diversion caused a little liquid bulge that pressed against the upriver side of the car, the passenger's side. It swelled like a little inner tube, a protective seal. On Harry's side there was a little triangular patch of still water, rimmed by a swifter current on its two isosceles sides, an arrowhead patch of calm that speared out from the car like a liquid shadow.
If the circumstances had been different she might have pointed to Harry's side and said, 'I know the calm side is called the lee side. But what's my side called? The side facing the flow?'
'The stoss,' Harry would have said. 'Stoss is opposite of lee.'
'Are you sure?' she would have said. 'I've never heard of stoss.'
'Depends if you're talking nautically or geologically,' Harry would have said. 'Stoss is geological. If you're talking glaciers then it's stoss.'
'But we're in a river.'
'Fiona,' Harry would say. 'It's a ford.'
'So what's the nautical term?
'Harry would have chewed at his lip and frowned, every fibre of him resisting the words I don't know. 'I only know stoss,' he would say at last, and for him it would count as an admission, a concession, something hard for him to bear. He would be short with her after that, not sullen exactly, but clipped. She would have to ask another question if she wanted him to brighten and to mend.
In the beginning they built a village together, in the basement. They used cardboard and balsa. He twisted tapers of thin card around a paintbrush to make them curl, and then glued the ends together to make tiny bushes of flax and tiny cabbage trees. She poured out a slow pool of clear epoxy onto the painted stones to make a river, and around each stone they painted a ripple-flash of white water, to give the illusion of a current, and life. They made ruined buildings from fine-grained foam and scored each brick with the point of a compass so the stone looked weathered and wild. They pressed ivy and tiny weeds into every corner. Later when it was finished and painted they page 27staged little battles and pushed tiny figurines together to make them fight.
The round-based figurines behaved differently from the square-based figurines. The round bases meant that more figures could crowd more closely in an attack, the attackers pressed around their victim with their circular bases all touching, like the petals of daisy-flower around its yellow hub. The round-based figures could move separately, and quickly, and this gave more opportunity for divisive play and even heroism. The square bases meant that nine or sixteen or twenty-five figures could fit together in a squadron, and behave as a military unit. This gave more opportunity for swifter, larger-scale battles. It also meant the figures were easier to push.
She liked the round bases. 'Skirmish tactics,' she said. 'It appeals. 'He preferred to play with square-based men. 'Martial strategy,' he said. 'Makes you think like a general. You care too much for the individuals, else.'
The village was dusty now, and half-hidden behind the refrigerator box and the rollaway bed and the weed-whacker and the failed attempts at this or that. The figurines were all boxed up. The village was abandoned, as if in the face of an epidemic, or a flood.
'Fuck,' Harry said now. 'The computer.'
There was a computer in the boot. It was his grandmother's. They were taking it to be repaired. It would never get repaired otherwise, it would just sit in a dustless corner of her lavender house and every so often she would turn it on to see if it was still broken, then turn it off at the wall once she had confirmed that it was. She only ever turned it off at the wall: it was her fear of the thing, they thought, her fear of understanding the machine too closely. It probably explained why the computer was broken.
'We can't get into the boot now,' said Fiona. 'Look at the water level.'
'I'll put the back seat down,' said Harry.
'I'll get it through the back seat.'
'What then?' she said.
'We'll poke it out the window,' Harry said.
They sat and didn't look at each other for a moment. The car was page 28rocking ever so slightly from the weight of the water, side to side. They sat and rocked.'
Whose idea was the ford?' she asked, in a fit of rhetorical fury. 'Whose idea was the ford? 'Harry only said, 'You'll have to wind down the window and climb out. I won't fit.
'It was true. He was enormous. He had to hug his elbows to his sides to be able to drive the car, curving his spine around so he was hunched over the wheel like a child curved around a hot-water bottle. He looked across at her.
'Maybe you should take off your pants,' he said. Even as he said it his knee gave a little jerk and she saw that water was already welling up through the radiator vents and lapping at the edges of his big sandaled toes.
'This is ridiculous,' she said. She wound down the window and slipped out of her shoes.
'Feet first? Or head first?' he said. He watched her squirm out of the seat-buckle and winch down the window as far as it would go. 'So you're going pants on.'
'Pants on,' she said.
'Remember to keep your arms dry so you can lift the computer after.'
'Fuck, Harry, it's nearly waist-deep.'
'You can carry it to shore on your shoulder.'
He watched her. His song was no longer playing, now the motor had died.
When they staged these miniature battles they always devised a scenario to start. The village must be captured and the ogre destroyed. That was one of them. The knights must lay siege to the inn and defeat the dark elves. It gave them something to work towards. The dwarves and their treasure pony need to make the mountain pass.
Their friends said it was nerdy. It made them feel proud, that nobody else had a basement village, that nobody else was nerdy enough to commit in this way. They liked it all the more, because it was nerdy. It made them feel like they were doing something infinitely private together, something nobody else could see.page 29
But they didn't fit together. She with her round base, he with his square. They knocked up against each other in the night. So the figurines were boxed up and packed away.
The village had everything. It had a chapel, and a brothel, and a well.
It took Fiona a long time to walk out of the river with the computer on her shoulder. He couldn't open his door: the water-level was too high, and it would flood in, and the car would be ruined. He sat and felt too big for his body and watched her brace her weight against the flow, and when she'd reached the bank he tried to turn on the windscreen wipers as a joke, but the ignition wouldn't turn. He rang the tow company from where he sat. He watched her heave the computer gracefully onto the dry stones. She lay down on the bank and put her arm over her eyes and even slept.
The tow man helped them out and talked and laughed and then fiddled with the engine and said, 'Try her now.' Fiona walked the tow man back to his vehicle and slapped the bonnet to say thanks.
'It's a nasty little trap, that one,' he said. 'You're not the first.' When she came back to the bank, Harry was standing by the side of the river with a handful of stones. One by one he was throwing the stones with a kind of dogged precision into the middle of the river. 'It's dangerous,' Harry said. 'That pothole, being there. Other motorists might have the same trouble. I'm filling it in.'
'Other motorists probably have four-wheel drive,' she said, but Harry only reached down for another armful of stones, cradling them against his great chest in the crook of his elbow as he gathered with his other hand. She watched him choose stones. The ones he selected were all the same size, all flat, dry, grey, and oval. Some he picked up and then discarded, maybe if they had a muddy underside, or if they turned out to be bigger and heavier, when unearthed, than they had seemed.
'I've memorised the spot,' Harry said. 'Where the front wheel was. It was about two metres out from that trapped log, there, and about a metre over from the sign. I made sure I memorised it. I'm filling it in.'
He began throwing again.page 30
'Maybe somebody stalled in the middle of the ford,' he said, 'and their wheels spun, and they caused the pothole. But it also might have been there since the summer, when they drive the lambs through down here. In summer the water's only an inch or so. A tractor could have caused the hole.
'Fiona was marvelling at him, this huge and determined and evasive man. She was cross and hot and her pants were sticking. She wanted him to sound the words I am sorry. My fault. Only mine. She wanted it to be his fault, his only. She would not forgive him until she heard the words.
'I'm thinking,' she said, 'if it's in the middle of a river, does it really count as a pothole?'
'It's paved,' he said. 'It's a ford. It counts as a pothole if it's paved.'
He was marvelling at her too, but more privately, deeper underneath. He felt that he would be less stubborn if only she were more forgiving. If only she didn't try and shame him so often, and so publicly, and with such evident joy. He would be a more flexible man if only she were more forgiving, and baited him less.
'I'm pretty sure the concrete stops right about there,' Fiona said, pointing to a blunted shelf just below the water-line, where the sloping grey of the road finished in a straight hem. Harry looked at it for a moment and then bent down to gather another tender armload of perfect stones.
'That will just be the most recent cement job,' he said. 'But it will have been paved once, underneath, right the way across.' 'It was a pretty silly mistake,' she said, prompting his apology. 'Driving into a ford without testing it, even. Especially after the rains.'
'Good job about the computer though,' the man said. 'Grandma's computer. That's the main thing.'
They both watched him throw stones. They watched for the thump and the splash.
He said, 'I have made it better, Fi. I made it better than it was.'
Later, in the car, he played his song again. The foothills turned purple with the dark. She was sleeping so he played it low.