–Where you from bro?
The answer should have been easy to give. In the circumstances it wasn’t so. I tasted blood. I was laid out, flattened stiff, the river washing against my shoes. My head felt so dazed like I had been hit. I turned my head to the left and could see my wallet and its contents spread around. The lowering sun burnt into my eyes until the shadow of my interlocutor moved and extended over my face. The question was repeated and I found the strength to reply.
–Here. I’m from here.
–Aint never seen you here.
–What did you do to me?
–I said, I aint never seen you here!
–Been gone a while.
–Boy, you in big trouble.
I blinked and my eyes stayed closed. My world turned inward and closed like a box, tight around me, the walls drawing in, squeezing ever tighter. I didn’t see this coming when I called my Grandma days before, soon after I had arrived back home.
Dial tone. Like a heart monitor detecting no pulse. Punch a few numbers and a reassuring ringing search for life.
–Grandma, it’s Robinson.
–Hello, dear. How’s Rotorua?
–You know, the same. Different.
–Did you have a good flight?
–She’s good. I’d like to come and visit on Sunday, Ok?
–I’ve got a new fire.
–Yes, I heard. Mum told me. We can go and see Grandpa, if you like?
–That would be lovely dear.
–Alright then, see you Sunday. About 11.
–Yes, at 11, Sunday. Sunday. I shall look forward to it. Take care.
End of call. Dial tone. Temporary loss of life.
I put down the phone and thought about Maya. I looked at the picture of her I carried. I’d see her later, but I liked to look at her smiling face anyway. She thought I was crazy to move back. We had moved away together at my instigation after all. It was a bit of an adventure, nothing much ever happened in Rotorua back then. And now we had moved back. We knew we wanted to stay together. We could re-make our lives here, things were different, I told her. The quality of life and the security of living where you are from has its own tangible power, surely? It always draws you back, you think you understand everything. We had always fought for what we had, more maybe for what we didn’t. There was no point in giving up all that we had gone through. We were in this together.
–I think he’s dead.
–Nah, look, he’s breathing.
–What’s he trying to say?
My state had amplified my hearing and my whispers felt like shouting. My vision blurred in and out. I could see two figures, sometimes multiples of each.
–We gotta do something bro. Looks like he’s dying. We can’t leave him.
–Be cool, he aint that bad.
My feet felt like they were burning in the river. I couldn’t lift my head to see, it felt like it and the rest of me was staked to the ground. I retreated back into my mind.
I had returned and kind of didn’t know where I was. Maybe that’s not so uncommon. Things change, it’s natural there should be a period of readjustment. Except I had this feeling that my life was a half-completed jigsaw and suddenly, inexplicably, the completed part of the puzzle had been messed up. I still had all the pieces but simply didn’t know how to put them back together. Once I did I’d be able to move forward.
The morning after I called my Grandmother I had this impulsive calling, a rapture. I woke up, eyes bold, and had to leave the house immediately. I drove down those long straight roads through the pine forests towards Murupara. I crossed over the river and up through the hills twisting along an un-sealed road to this track head. I had been here years before as a boy with my family. It had been one of the happiest times of my youth. My Brother, Father, and Grandfather went into this bush together for a few days. It was at this track head we realized we had forgotten Grandpa’s pack and consequently we had to lash a potato sack onto his back to carry his gear. He wore it without complaint, happy just to be there together, as we all were. Today there was an early model Starlet parked here, next to the Department of Conservation signboards. Clouds hung low waiting to rain again and smear all sign of my presence from the road. There had been no trace on the road of the Starlet on the way in. It looked barely roadworthy, a Walkman and CDs were left on the front seat in clear view. Couldn’t help but think the owner felt no fear of getting broken into or was still around.
I had come for this virgin forest, kahikatea, totara and rimu. O, those trees! Like rugby posts to a five year old. I got out of my car and they called my name. How ridiculous, I thought, looking around for someone, the Starlet driver, a movement. I walked into the forest and stopped and the trees crowded even closer in. The track led on in front of me winding its way into the murk. I couldn’t take another step though the way forward was there in front of me. Then, I felt sure They wanted me to stop, turn, to go back from whence I came. The cold bush air seemed to be sucking away, leaving me to snatch gasps on its retreat. The birdsong ceased, the patter of rain too. The silence droned in my ears so loudly I clamped my hands to my head. Then They started shouting my name again and it all went around in my head.
I returned to my car and as fast as I had arrived I left. Back down those twisting roads and along the straights. The cloud had lifted on the lowlands though the good visibility didn’t help me see the cop coming the other way. I looked at the speedo as he passed: 120 km/h. He flicked his lights on immediately and turned and came after me. I pulled over and slumped on the wheel; a despondent and exhausted penitent.
–Morning sir, going a bit fast there eh? Nice straight road isn’t it?
–I’ve recorded you at 120 km/h.
–I honestly didn’t think I was going that fast.
–Can I see your license please, sir?
I scuffed around unable to find it, the easiest thing made impossible under pressure.
–Where have you come from?
–I’ve been up in the hills behind Murupara.
–There aint many like you up there. You should be careful.
–I was just having a look around, the weather closed in and it wasn’t so pleasant, so I headed home.
–And where’s home?
–What’s your address there?
I mumbled the address.
–I can’t believe it, I said shaking my head. I’ve never had a speeding ticket.
I was unable to think up a more imaginative defense. I must have had a long face like I was about to be led to the gallows.
–Hey, cheer up, you aint got a ticket yet. Not as if you set an all time speed record along here. This is what is going to happen. I’m going to go back to the station and have a look at your record. If it’s clean for speeding fines, like you say it is, I’ll let you off with a warning. If the reverse is true, a ticket will be in the mail, Ok?
–Yes, yes, thank you.
–Now have a good day and drive safely.
–Yes, yes, thank you officer.
When I got home Maya wasn’t. I phoned her and told her about what had happened. Well, most of it, the bits I could make sense of myself. She sounded cold and bothered. Just listen to me for a second, she kept saying. I must have been running off at the mouth after all that had happened. Soon after I had put the phone down Sarz called, our old mate. She lived out by the lake and wanted us to come around tomorrow night for dinner. Sure, I said, sounds grand. I made some dinner and slouched on the couch. I must have crashed out asleep since I awoke there screaming shaking sweating, everything was going around in my head. I had wet myself. It was morning. I walked to the kitchen to put the jug on, Maya was there. I was understandably shocked to see her, in my state, all askew. I kissed her on the cheek, clammy track pants stuck to my leg. I don’t think she noticed, she didn’t say anything at least. I told her about Sarz’s dinner and she nodded and frowned with creases forming on her forehead like a river cutting a new path in flood.
–Ya Mum’s gunna give youse ears a clip when she finds out about this.
–Don’t panic. Look, there’s his wallet, check it. Don’t you know nuffin? Got to know what and who you’re dealing with before you can make any decisions.
–But you aint helping anyone like this.
A boy picked up my wallet, thumbing through its contents, old receipts, some Aussie money, assorted business cards.
–Any name or something? Any credit cards?
–Nah, eh, only eftpos. Stink. Got his name on it, Robinson.
He passes it around and puts it back in the wallet. The drivers licence is more appealing.
–Hey, we got us an Aussie. Told you he wasn’t from ‘round here. Don’t much look like that photo with all that blood.
–Look at this, said a boy picking up the photo of Maya carried in the wallet. Must be his missus. Shit, she’s gunna be pissed.
Sarz’s house was at the end of a long dirt road with other drives coming off it to the lake edge houses. The road looked like a leafy tunnel with the trees desperately trying to recover the track, to not let you in nor others out. Several cars were already parked outside the house.
I’ve made pumpkin soup, Sarz greeted us as she opened the door. Her warm smile beamed and her eyes concentrated on us and didn’t let go. They were red and she noticed me looking at them
–We started a bit early, she giggled. Come in.
The house was a 1940s bach with 1990s extension. Its vertical weatherboard interior gave a sturdy but solemn character. Bedrooms with the heights of growing children recorded on their walls were accessed off the main living room where the centerpiece was a stone fireplace.
–One of those fires which look good but give no heat, bemoaned Sarz, as she showed us around.
There were three men sitting at an old heavy slab of a dining table in the main room, illuminated by a melting candle drooping now like the skin on their respective faces. A girl, whose name I never did get told or, like the others, cared to remember, sat listening to their conversations which our arrival interrupted.
Man 1:–Where are you from then?
Man 2:–Riiight, Rotorua. Sarz mentioned you’ve been away a while, a long while. Didn’t know you were from here.
Me:–Yeah, time to return I guess. Everyone takes their own time and knows when it’s right to return.
Man 3:–And to leave again!
The Men chuckle to themselves, like it’s the funniest thing ever.
–Dinner’s ready, announced Sarz who had slipped away to the kitchen.
We eat without talking much. Maya picks at her food, uneasy in this company. The dishes cleared, we sit around the fire with coffee and tim tams. The flames fan our imaginations, all stories told then pauses. Maya talks of Australia. And around the circle it goes, my turn.–You know, I was watching our fire the other day. It’s all a novelty again after Australia. It’s one of those where you can see through the door and regulate the air going in, making it burn faster or slower. The fire was going really well, a frenzy of flames. Then I turned it right down, starving it of air. The flames were quelled, embers dulled. Soon after, I increased the air again. These little lines of flame crept along this log, gases could be seen building up, swirling, then a whoosh! Manic flames filling all the space again. My life’s gone like that. Maybe yours too? Lately, I reckon I‘ve been at that point where the air’s been turned right down and I can barely breathe. But, y’know, the air’s just about to be turned up and something’s gonna happen. Gonna be an explosion or something. That’s where I’m at.
Silence. Until the Girl pipes up.
–Hey, I like that story. Reminds me of the time me and my friends set fire to the rubbish dump. We caught these rats there and set them alight with an aerosol can and lighter. Bloody thing ran off. The place burned for days.
The Men laughed, Sarz giggled, the Girl sighed in remembrance.
–We better get going, I countered. We’ve got to see my Grandma early tomorrow.
Sarz stood up as I did to show us out. She opened the door like a sentry as we put our shoes on.
–Who’s we Robby? Sarz asked. You and Maya?
I stood stone cold while Maya walked out the door ahead of me.
–Look, I know about Maya. She emailed me. I’m sorry. I really am. But she’s gone, she’s not here. She had to make a decision. You should understand that. Do you?
I closed the door behind me.
–Fark this bro, I’m outta here. Someone’s gotta think straight.
A boy jogs off toward my car.
–5, 6, 7, 8, and he’s out! The champ is knocked out! How many fingers am I holding up? What day is it? Say it again Aussie. Where you from bro?
–Grandma, I’m here, I say loudly as I open the back door and make my way inside.
–Hello dear, comes my Grandma’s sprightly reply.
She shuffles from the lounge to the kitchen to embrace me.
–It’s so good to see you.
–You too. It’s been too long.
– I’ve brought you some soup. I made it. Onion soup, a real broth.
–O lovely. I’ve never had onion soup.
–Really? You would have used the packet stuff for dip.
–Yes, yes. Your Grandfather loved dip. He had some dip and chips before we left for hospital. He wasn’t meant to, of course, so soon before the operation. A last little treat. Have you seen my new fire?
–Yes, it’s lovely.
–It’s a gas fire. Don’t know why we didn’t put it in years ago.
She looks out the window at a feeding tui. Grandma sits in Grandpa’s old chair. She wear his signet ring, forever twisting it around her arthritic fingers, thinking of him.
–I should never have let him take the ring off for the operation. The nurses insisted. But now I’m told they could have taped it up. He’d never taken it off since we were married 57 years ago. Never.
My Grandfather stares at us from the coffee table. This proud photo of him in the chair my Grandma now sits in with his comforting belly and pale blue shirt and shorts he was later buried in.
–He went too soon, too soon, mutters my Grandma.
I can only ever sit there and listen. I can barely bring myself to ask the most cursory questions even though I have thousands to ask. I know my Grandma wants me to talk about him with me. I can’t though. The best I can do is take her to see Grandpa since she can no longer go herself.
Grandma holds my arm and we walk from the car at the cemetery through the piling Autumn leaves to the returned services wall where his ashes are interred. Poppies are still stuck to the plaques from the recent ANZAC day remembrance. We find Grandpa and Grandma reaches out and rubs the plaque.
–I miss him so much, so much.
We cling onto each other, our running noses and eyes going everywhere.
–That’s where I’ll go too one day, says Grandma pointing to the space beneath my Grandfather’s name. We’ll be together again soon.
We shuffle back through the leaves and Grandpa in his fantail form comes to say goodbye and give thanks for visiting. He flits around, chirpy and energetic in his usual cheeky way. Grandma and I laugh at his antics and return home.
Grandma settles back into her chair with a cup of tea and shrewsberry biscuit.
–Just one sugar for me, thank you dear. Why don’t you go fishing? Down by the river like you used to. You loved fishing there.
She’s tired. Her suggestion is, as always, her polite recommendation of how and what is to happen.
I kiss my Grandma goodbye and drive down to the river, past the Mill with its belching stacks where my Father and Grandfather once worked; through the town my Mother grew up in; past the retirement village, formerly the maternity hospital where I was born. The river remains the same but different too – the same urgent flow and swirling intensity, its dark pools like black holes ready to suck you down and never release.
A breeze sways the giant pine I stand beneath, its spiral staircase of branches making steps skyward. It’s this pine I climbed as a child and perched in, high faraway but close enough to gaze down and observe all the universe I knew at that time.
I cast out into the river, an extension of me into the world. A pause and a retrieve. Another cast. Again and again. Hoping for something to happen, something, for everything to be different, to even be as it was. It’s a meditation. I’m here but away. Until something happens.
–You got a light bro?
I didn’t see them approach, three boys behind me staring as I turn startled by the enquiry.
–Nah, sorry eh, don’t smoke.
And they walk off up the river after looking me up and down. They stop 30 metres away up river. And it all starts going around in my head again. Maya would know what to do, she always does. One boy pisses on a tree and then they all stare hard back at me when they catch me looking at them. I cast out again, not knowing what else to do. But it’s all going around in my head and can’t be stopped, never. I reel in and pack my gear unsettled. I realize I have to walk past them to get to my car. Impulsively I climb the tree instead, a temporary getaway like always to nowhere. Up I go, around and around, the pine sap sticking to my hands. Up up up, to where I can rest easy.
Wedged in a V of branches, I stare out. The known universe nowadays has shrunken into my head and memories. I look down and see the boys walking past the base of the tree. They pause and look up for a second, talk amongst themselves and move on. It’s like I could sit here forever, safe, and nothing would happen yet be so sure in the knowledge of all the things that once did happen. How one day it all stopped. Her email copied into my mind, a file that’s opened and can’t be closed, with no clever default key to end it.
I’ve been asking myself all kinds of questions lately and I keep answering them with all kinds of different questions and answers. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we once met, that we traveled, that we lived, that we saw and drank and ate and laughed and swam and slept and drove and kissed and loved. We’ve had a pretty incredible time together, hey? There are so many things I love about you, that make me so happy when I run the fingers of my mind through them. There is something stronger than all these thoughts, however. In my life, I’ve never fought so hard for the importance of your love. Why, after five years, does this still happen? What kind of people give up love, like the way we feel for each other, without fighting for it? I though no longer want to fight myself to love you. I’ve tried to tell you this before to your face but all I can do now is write to you like a stranger. Unlike you, I see a new life here in Australia and it’s without you. I’m leaving you. It’s over. Be sure, you are so fixed in my heart, by leaving I feel like we will have each other forever. But, that said, you should also know I have been having relations with a Scottish man by the name of Carson. We have been hanging out, he’s Cam’s housemate. I also had sex with Sonny while he was visiting from London. I hope this makes sense.
The breeze now feels like a gale through the tops. I zip up my jacket as tight as it will go. The horizon sways with me and the tree. I carefully take out the photo of Maya from my wallet and offer it a tremulous stare. It’s like everything that I am, was, can be reduced to this image, the key piece to the puzzle. It sticks to my sappy finger tips. It’s only been a week but there’s a bit of the photo I already don’t recognize. Maybe next week the less I see, more will make sense. I look at it again. Strange, for the first time I feel better for it. I return it to my wallet, balancing on the branch, swapping hands. But it’s then a gust gives the tree a real shove and I lurch and the wallet jolts from my hand as I bump into the trunk. I try to balance snapping forward and back with a whip and clutch after the wallet as it flips past my leg. I instinctively flick out my other hand missing a branch. And it’s as simple as that. I’m dropping, falling, in my shambles attempting to cling to the waxy pine needles. I’m falling. I’m falling and watching the wallet and thinking I can get it and soar back up to the tops and everything will be all right. I’m falling and the ground comes up and smacks into me with the dull thwack that only a body makes.
I open my eyes.
–Where you from bro?
And though I can see little with my jaded vision, for better or worse, even if nothing else makes any sense, I can answer this question. For the time being, this piece of the puzzle fits, and that’s all that matters.