Karen Duncan 2013
They had exhausted the attractions of Arthur’s Pass. Jo had been to the two cafés. The first to have a coffee with Alice and Meg, the second to have a nosey and to make sure they had made the right choice of where to stop and have coffee. She’d been to the tourist centre, looked at the maps and the post cards. She’d walked along the railway line, stared grimly at the few wooden cottages painted garish seventies colours, gazed up at the grey sky and thanked Christ she didn’t live in such an isolated and desolate place. An easterly wind howled through the valley.
‘Where the fuck is Alice?’ she asked Meg as they both neared the car.
A cry caused Jo to look directly above her, and she was just in time to see the bright orange feathers under the wing of a kea soaring overhead. It cheered her to see such colour in the gloom. The bird settled on some railings, wings slotting into position against its body, merging into the yellow green of the bush. Within minutes it had found something to amuse itself with. Swooping down from the railing it grabbed the tab from a drink can and tumbled in the gutter like some kind of feathered acrobat.
‘Clown’ Meg said, as they watched the bird pull at the tab, tearing at it with claw and curved beak.
‘Imagine that set of tools swooping down on an unsuspecting lamb, tearing through the wool to the skin, drawing blood’
‘Yeah thanks Jo,’ Meg said, holding her hand up to her ear, indicating that she’d heard enough. She pulled her jacket over her chest and crossed the road to the information centre. Jo followed, and the two of them looked through the window.
‘She won’t be in there.’
‘Should we go looking for her, or stay here?’
The place was too small for Alice to be lost. Jo stepped back out on to the street and looked up one way and then down the other.
‘What is she wearing again?’
‘She’s wearing that jacket she always wears.’
‘That grey one. Green. Sort of a greygreen.’
‘What’s that?’ Meg asked pointing to a building not far from them.
‘It’s a church.’
Meg stared at the building. ‘It doesn’t look much like a church.’
Jo shrugged her shoulders. ‘I guess it was the best they could do.’
For some reason Meg turned heel and walked towards it in a purposeful manner. There was little Jo could do but follow. She could see what Meg meant when she said it didn’t look much like a church. The walls were mostly concrete block, although there was some stone at the side. And there was a small squat stone cross on top, and out in front, at the top of the path stood a small bell tower, though both leaned more towards the utilitarian than the decorative.
‘I guess you need to know what you’re looking for’ Jo said as she followed Meg through the door.
And there, a miracle. Alice sat up in one of the front pews, the only person in the building. Her face was raised to the large oblong window above the altar, which framed the waterfall cascading down the rockface behind. The water brought out the colours in the rock, intense orange and various shades of green and ochre. A cross was marked by the centre framing of the window, and only became apparent to Jo as her vision pulled back from the spectacle beyond.
‘Wow,’ Meg exclaimed, walking up the aisle and positioning herself directly in front of the window.
‘I didn’t know you were religious, Alice.’ Jo settled into the pew next to her.
Alice turned, a beautific smile on her face. ‘This is my idea of God, Jo.’
Jo looked at her friend’s face, the delicate pale skin with a light dusting of freckles, framed by soft brown curls lightly touching her shoulders. Jo glanced over at Meg, her head tilted up towards the waterfall. Normally she would have said Meg was nothing like Alice, but looking at her rapturous face she had to admit it was like Alice’s at one of her worst moments.
‘I’m not getting anything.’
Jo leant back in the pew. The building was tiny, and simply furnished. A plain wooden altar, timber walls and gabled ceiling. Jo had no idea how long Alice and Meg intended staying there, but she was starting to feel claustrophobic. She decided to go and sit in the car. At least then she could choose where to sit. She held her hand out for the car keys.
‘Offer one up for a safe trip through the gorge, Alice.’
‘Looks like you’re in the back’ Alice said to Meg, as they walked from the church to the car. Meg simply shrugged her shoulders. Alice wondered how she could have been blessed with a child who was so easy going. Behind her little car a tour bus loomed, the driver busy with paperwork. She opened her car door and slid into the driver’s seat, starting the engine before putting on her seat belt. She managed to pull out before the bus.
‘Way to go Mum,’ Meg said loudly from the back, having already plugged her earphones into her ears.
‘And not before time,’ Jo muttered, shifting her feet on the floor of the car.
“Yeah yeah,” Alice thought as they headed towards the mountains. She hoped Jo wasn’t going to wriggle and shift her feet, and sigh, like she had coming across the Canterbury plains. Alice knew what that was all about: Jo didn’t like the fact that Alice didn’t let the speedometer go over eighty, while everyone else did a hundred or more. What did it matter? As long as other people could pass. No doubt when Jo went speeding through the countryside in her flash car there was no difference between fifty and a hundred, but Alice’s little car started to shudder if she went too fast, and she felt every little piece of metal on the road like a stone in her shoe.
Alice winced as Jo took the Enya CD she’d been playing out of the slot and replaced it with a Leonard Cohen disc she’d pulled out of her bag. Good. Now if they went hurtling down into the gorge they had the soundtrack for it. Besides the drone of Leonard there was silence in the car, and Alice was grateful for no distraction as she moved towards Otira and the gorge.
As they climbed up into the mountains the light shifted down a few shades as the huge cliffs of granite obscured the sun. Alice could feel the pull of the car under them as the road lurched up at an impossibly steep angle. Her body curved forward over the steering wheel as she held the vehicle on the road. Looking past Jo’s shoulder over to the opposing rock face, a replica of the one they were on, Alice was amazed at how fierce it looked. A wall of grey stone.
Concentrating on the white line that snaked its way in front of them, Alice didn’t feel she could take her eyes off the road long enough to check up on Jo, but she was under the impression she hadn’t moved since they’d entered the mountains. Her own body was starting to feel stiff. She forced herself back into the seat, tried to relax.
‘You know, if they really want to utilise nature to signify the magnificence of God, the powers that be should just stick a frigg’n great steepled glass roof over this damn gorge,’ Jo said winding down her window. She leaned forward and looked past the drop into the river below. ‘Listen to that.’
The wind, along with the sound of water crashing over stones below rushed into the car. The Nissan wobbled under Alice’s hands. The entire back seemed to shift as Meg’s hand clutched the back of her seat. Pulling herself over Alice’s left shoulder she looked out Jo’s window at the drop below.
Meg’s voice, pitched to be heard over her music at full volume, was carried away by the void just beyond the narrow road.
‘Jesus,’ Alice gasped, touching the brake a little too hard as they veered around the corner. She looked in the rear vision mirror: the tour bus was right behind them. The car lurched forward.
‘What’s wrong?’ Jo yelled in her ear, which she wouldn’t have needed to do if only she’d close the damn window.
‘I don’t know,’ Alice said.
Suddenly everything had become confused. Her feet were moving around like someone tripping down the stairs unsure of where the steps were, but somehow managing to remain upright. Which was the brake and which the accelerator? The more she tried to figure it out the more confused she became. Someone told her to calm down. She suspected the voice was somewhere inside her head.
‘Don’t brake Alice, that bus is right behind us.’
The rock rose up on either side of them, the bus nudged from behind, Alice felt as if she was being squeezed, she was finding it difficult to breathe. The car turned on the road like a train fixed to the track, and there the rock was, in front of them.
‘You’re doing well Mum.’
Meg’s hands were on her shoulders. Alice felt anchored to the road. There was no way her car was going off the road with her daughter in it.
‘Do you want to drive Jo?’ Alice yelled suddenly, surprising even herself. Her mind was racing, thoughts tumbling over each other, but somehow she’d managed to speak.
There was no reply. She concentrated on her breathing, drawing in deep lungfuls of air that felt cool and damp, as if infused with a fine spray from the river below. Everything else she trusted to instinct. Eventually her brain slowed, the car steadied itself. Every now and then the rock rose up in front of them, momentarily blocking the road, but then a space would open up and let the car through. Alice eased her foot on the accelerator. Of course it was the accelerator, how could she ever have doubted it? She looked into the rear view mirror and saw there was some distance now between their car and the tour bus.
As soon as they were out of the gorge Alice pulled over to let the bus driver through.
‘You shouldn’t have been psyched out by him Mum, he was just being a bully,’ Meg said as he passed giving them a quick toot.
Alice shook her head. ‘No Meg. That was a friendly toot.’
‘Your mother’s right.’ Jo released her seat belt and stretched her long limbs. ‘He could have tooted at her up over the gorge, but he pulled back and gave her the space she needed, which can’t have been easy considering the size of that vehicle.’
Now that they were stationary, Alice didn’t feel she could pull out into the road again. She stepped out of the car and walked around to the other side, opening Jo’s door.
‘You can drive the rest of the way.’
Jo didn’t get out straight away. She simply turned in the seat and placed her feet on the road as if she needed time to think about it. Eventually she looked up.
Jo nodded. She got out of the car and walked over to the driver’s side. Alice sank into the passenger seat with such a sense of relief she almost cried. Through the quiet came the muffled sound of music on Meg’s iPod. Alice hoped she wasn’t harming her hearing.
The car glided along the road between hills and a flat expanse of land breaking onto the coast on their right. They could smell the sea. Hoki was just around the corner.
‘I always get a sense of my own mortality when I’m going through that gorge’ Jo said, causing Alice to smile.
‘Sea looks calm,’ Meg yelled out the side window as she wound it down.
Jo and Alice both laughed. ‘Don’t be deceived by that Meg,’ Jo said, ‘it’s probably as rough as guts out there.’
They passed the rugby field laid out like a mat in front of the ocean. Around the
last curve of the road into Hokitika they saw a cream building marking the turnoff to Lake Kaniere.
‘That’s the milk factory,’ Jo said.
‘Famous is it?’ Meg had taken her ear plugs out of her ears and was starting to take an interest.
‘We used to know the manager. Big burly fellow in kahki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.
Alice pushed herself back up in the seat. ‘Mr Tinkler.’
‘You wouldn’t have picked him as a hero would you Alice? Not to look at him.’
‘He wasn’t a hero, Jo. He was just a bloke.’
‘What he did was heroic. Taking off his shirt to reveal that chest was heroic.’
‘What did he do?’ Meg asked, squeezing herself between the two front seats.
‘He dived into the lake.’
Seeing that big man throw himself into the water had sent a rush of cold over Alice’s body. His khaki shorts ballooned out as he swam to where Sam stood chest deep, looking down into the lake, as if he’d lost something, his watch perhaps. That was what Alice told herself as she stood rigid on the jetty, her heart still racing from the excitement that had gone before. Jo’s hand grazed her ribs as Mr Tinkler dived down, and there Timothy was, his head pushing through the surface at a funny angle, before Mr Tinkler tucked it under the crock of his arm, and the two of them glided to the shore. “It’s like on the telly.” Had Jo actually said that? The thing she did remember was staring at her brother’s face, wondering when he was going to finally give it up and stop messing with them.
‘Unlike everyone else he took action. That’s what having a responsible job in a small town gets you.’
‘Stop being flippant, Jo.’
‘Shit.’ Meg let go of the back seat. ‘I assumed it was in the sea’ she said, plugging the earphones back into her ears. ‘Who drowns in a lake?’