The basketball hoop at St Francis was an iron ring mounted on a steel-mesh backboard. After it rained kids would drag over benches and take turns jumping and hanging, and the whole structure would shake and drip rust on the concrete in great orange splatters. Court markings in yellow were slowly getting scuffed off the concrete, flake by flake, as seasons passed. Four pairs of sneakers at work.
Richard was under the hoop. He set himself up there, standing strong, waiting for the play to come to him. An arm’s length away was Adam, on the other team. Adam was a bit taller than Richard but he didn’t play like it. Richard hoped to change that sometime.
Richard’s team-mate Scott close by, in easy reach of Adam if the pass came down that way, but mostly lined up to guard the fourth player, Dennis. Dennis had the ball at the top of the court, and he was standing there bouncing it, in no hurry to make a move.
‘He’s gonna drive right at me. I got him,’ said Scott.
Richard nodded. ‘Go on then.’
Scott moved a few paces closer to Dennis. ‘Den, you don’t get this. This one is not for you.’
Dennis smiled and made his move. He faked a step to the right then switched his weight to go left, the ball crossing back and forth with him, so smooth and fast that Scott was left scrambling. Richard had expected something like that. Dennis had that quick first step, and Scott just wasn’t able to match it, despite his bravado. As Dennis came in, Richard moved to block his path, arms spread in an imposing defensive wall.
Dennis didn’t seem at all bothered. He flicked his wrist and the ball slipped past Richard into Adam’s hands. Adam was now unguarded right by the basket, with a clear look for an easy two-point shot.
Scott was racing past Richard, and shouting: ‘Don’t you dare shoot that!’
Adam hesitated. That gave Scott the time he needed to get there and stick arms right up in his face. Richard watched them compete. Adam had a good few inches on Scott, but he didn’t seem capable of taking advantage of his height. Scott was chattering the whole time, ‘Come on Adam, shoot it and get blocked, come on, come on!’
Then Adam scrunched up his face, pivoted clear, and took the shot. Richard saw his head snap back as Scott’s elbow caught his chin. The ball flew past the hoop, missing completely, and Adam fell back with a yell.
Richard and Dennis both came over. Adam sat on his haunches, rubbing his chin with both hands. ‘Ow!’
‘Come on, what are we stopped for?’ Scott demanded.
‘Cool it, Scott,’ said Richard, waiting for Adam to call a foul or let the contact go.
‘Foul!’ Adam said, upset.
Scott threw up his hands. ‘What? That was no foul!’
‘It’s his call,’ Richard said. ‘You always pull that bullshit.’
‘Hey, I know what I’m doing,’ Scott said, bristling.
‘Bully,’ Dennis said. He was grinning. Richard felt the tension between him and Scott disappear, just like that.
Scott threw up his hands, more play-acting than real now. ‘All right, all right, whatever. Take it. Come on, let’s go.’
Dennis extended a hand to pull Adam up. Even though Dennis was wire-thin and much shorter than Adam he seemed to lift him effortlessly. ‘Let’s finish,’ he said to his partner. ‘You take the ball this time.’
Richard set up in the centre again. He caught his mind wandering and forced it to focus back on the game, watching as Adam scooped up the ball and got ready to pass it.
Dennis spun and dodged, trying to stay free long enough for Adam to get the ball to him. Scott raced after him, throwing up a burly arm to cut off any pass. It was hard work. Dennis was dodging out from Scott’s defence as fast as Scott could set it.
While they jockeyed for position, Richard remained still and kept his eye on Adam. The big guy clearly wasn’t sure what to do. Dennis wasn’t giving him an easy option. Adam was going to have to do some work right from the start here. That was interesting. Dennis was working on Adam too, then.
Eventually Adam started to dribble the ball, coming in a few steps. This drew Richard in closer. The shift created just enough space for just long enough. Dennis darted into the gap and called: ‘Yep!’ Adam seized the chance and hurled the ball through, barely clearing Richard’s attempt to intercept it. The pass went exactly where it needed to. Dennis claimed it and sailed along the court’s yellow baseline, then switched directions and sliced inwards. He was right under the hoop, but Scott and Richard were both there too, leaping to stop the shot –
Dennis waited for them both to come down and then curled up past them, laying the ball into the basket.
The moment the ball fell back to earth, Scott kicked it into the fence. ‘Fuck! Fucking shitting fuck!’
Dennis was relaxed. ‘Me and Adam, raining on you.’
Scott threw up his hands. ‘Yeah, yeah, game, you win.’ He hitched up his tee-shirt to wipe the sweat off his brow.
‘Just some rain on your face.’
Scott punched him in the arm. ‘Dick.’
Richard went over to Adam and clapped his shoulder. ‘Picked up some new bruises?’
Adam checked himself, breathing hard. ‘Um. Nothing terribly fatal.’
‘That pass at the end was sweet.’
‘You almost got it, though. I don’t know, passing isn’t one of my strengths is it? You know, this trial… I mean, we are being trialled, right?’
‘That’s the idea.’ Richard could already see where this was going, but he let Adam play it out.
‘It’s just, you know? I haven’t played any proper sport for ages, and, I don’t know. I’m not sure. With coaches and stuff. Trials to see if you make the team.’
‘You’ll be fine.’
Adam didn’t look convinced.
Richard went to his schoolbag for a drink bottle. As he sucked down the water, warm from the afternoon sun, he could hear shouts from the rugby fields. The curse of basketball in New Zealand – everyone played rugby instead. Dennis knelt beside him, getting his own bottle out. ‘Will he be cool?’ he asked, nodding towards Adam.
Richard checked to make sure Adam wasn’t in earshot before replying. ‘Yeah, he’ll be fine. And he’ll make the team. He’s dedicated, he knows the game, he’s tall – any coach would have him.’
‘But we still don’t know who’s coaching?’
‘Nope.’ Richard took another drink.
‘You could do it.’
Richard grinned. ‘You guys’d never listen to me.’
‘You played like shit, by the way.’ Dennis looked at him casually. ‘Distracted.’
Richard didn’t answer. He wasn’t ready to share just yet.
‘Not just now, either,’ Dennis continued. ‘All day you were staring out of windows.’
Before Dennis could pursue the subject, Scott stepped closer, his voice dropping. ‘Guys. Company.’
James Travers was coming over. Bleached hair and a stud in his earlobe, wearing a rugby league shirt. He sometimes played at lunchtime but he was no friend of theirs.
‘Hey,’ Richard said.
‘Hey guys,’ James replied. ‘Shit, don’t stop on my account.’
Richard stayed face-on to James. He felt the others assemble behind him. ‘What’s up?’
‘Not much, eh? I just figured you guys would know the score with that basketball team thing. Mr Sheldon tell you anything?’
Scott’s eyes narrowed. ‘Why do you care?’
‘Why do you think? Might try out. Do you reckon?’
Scott and Dennis exchanged a glance.
Richard nodded. ‘Sure. You can play, we know that.’
‘Ah, I’m okay. Nothing like you guys.’
Scott slapped Adam in the chest. ‘Too right. Hell, Adam’s become a dominating giant. Game is burning in his belly!’
James grinned. ‘Shit, yeah, Adam, between you and Rich we’ve got the height thing covered. You ready to slamdunk for St Frank’s?’
Adam looked even more uncomfortable. ‘Uh… I can’t dunk. I can nearly do it. But, ah. Not quite.’
As Adam stumbled to the end of his answer, Dennis came forward, stealing James’ attention. He was bouncing the ball. He eyed up James, then turned and took a long-range shot. The ball dropped neatly through the hoop.
‘Shot,’ James said.
‘Have you heard who’s gonna be the coach?’ Dennis asked.
‘No-one knows. Sheldon’s keeping it secret.’
‘Huh. Well, I guess we find out next week.’ The ball bounced towards James so he took a shot, rimming it out. ‘Hey, I might come and play with you guys after school next week. Get my game on, you know? That cool?’
‘Sure,’ Richard said.
‘All right. Look, I’ll leave you guys to it, okay?. See you later.’
‘Have a good weekend,’ Richard said.
James headed off. The foursome looked at each other.
Scott flexed his hands as he spoke. ‘Is it just me, or did he actually neglect to insult any of us just now?’
‘He’s still a dick,’ said Dennis.
‘Oh my god, is he ever still a dick,’ Scott said. ‘ “You ready to slamdunk for St Franks?” You got to be fucking kidding me.’
‘He can play,’ Richard said.
Scott shook his head. ‘So we have to be friends with him now? Fuck off. Four years of dickery doesn’t go away just like that.’
Dennis considered this. ‘Yeah.’
‘See, Dennis agrees with me!’
‘Yeah, he can play.’
Scott made a disgusted sound. Richard grinned. James and the other guys from their class weren’t too bad, not really. Sure, they were dicks sometimes, and they’d made life miserable for Scott in particular before now, but what the hell. This was their last year at school. Things were meant to be different this year.
Adam turned to catch Scott’s attention: ‘Hey, Scott, what did you say about me? What’s burning in my belly?’
‘At the moment? Nothing. Your belly has sprinklers and that fire extinguisher foam. Hey, so we up again? Another game? I’m just hotting up here.’ Scott tried to spin the ball on his finger and failed miserably. ‘And, what are we doing tonight? Movies or something?’
Adam shook his head. ‘I have to look after my brother.’
‘So party at your place!’
Richard cut in. ‘I’m busy too.’ He had made plans for tonight. ‘You as well, Den?’
Scott looked at the others with disapproval. He pointed at Dennis’s chest. ‘I’m feeling fucking betrayed right now.’
‘Well, fuck the lot of you. I’ll go and learn macrame or some shit. I’ll make some new friends in the Hutt’s happening macrame scene and hang out with them. At least I know they’ll be free on Friday fucking night. What are you doing, anyway?’
‘Date,’ Dennis said.
‘Yeah, well I could have fucking guessed that couldn’t I. Who with this time? Someone new? Of course it’s someone new, it’s always someone new. Do we know her?’
‘How the hell do you meet all these girls? Some kind of voodoo sex magic?’
‘God damn. What about you, Rich?’
Richard was only half-listening. ‘What?’
‘Your plans tonight?’
‘I’m meeting up with someone.’
‘A girl? No way. You have a date too? Fuck. I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s play another game. Dennis, you’re with me.’
Adam slouched back on to the court, following Scott. Dennis paused and caught Richard’s eye.
They started the new game.
The Kings had two cars, one for Daniel’s work and one for the family. Richard’s parents were both staying in tonight, and that meant he could drive his father’s car. It was late-model and American-made, leather interior, good stereo. When Richard was behind the wheel with the road disappearing under him he felt old and wealthy and slightly corrupt. He never got tired of it.
Richard pulled up in front of Kirsty’s house and turned off the ignition. Her house was near Adam’s, not quite as far up the hill. After she gave him her number he’d checked out all the Rhodes in the white pages and figured out where she lived. He’d made a point of working out which house was hers the next time he’d come up to visit Adam. Maybe that was a bit stalkerish, but he’d been curious.
He got out and locked the car, then walked down the path to Kirsty’s front door. The house was one of those deceptive hillside designs, apparently small but with several storeys extending downwards. A nice, ordinary house.
He was nervous and distracted. He was going home. He was going on a date with Kirsty.
He rang the bell and the door opened a moment later to reveal a boy with a suspicious frown. ‘Who are you?’
‘Come away from there, Simon, leave the poor boy alone.’ Kirsty’s mother appeared in the hallway and put a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder. She extended the other hand. ‘Nice to meet you, Richard.’
‘Nice to meet you, ma’am.’
Mrs Rhodes smiled. ‘Ma’am. Well how about that. Come on in, we’ll close the door, don’t let all the heat out.’ As Richard came in she steered Simon through one of the other doors and called out, ‘Kirsty, come and rescue Richard before your father turns up and gets chatting to him. Then you’ll never get away from here. Better move fast!’
With those two gone Richard found himself alone again. He was in Kirsty’s house. He swallowed, straightened his back, put his hands in his pockets and then took them out again. Then put them back in. What was he going to talk about? He’d have to make conversation. They were going on a date.
There was only one thing he could talk about.
Kirsty appeared at the end of the hall, apologetic. ‘Hi! Sorry about that.’ She looked great – jeans and a white top, with her brown hair hanging loose around her face.
‘Mum, I’m going!’
Richard heard Mrs Rhodes reply, ‘Have fun. Don’t be too late.’
‘Come on,’ Kirsty said, ushering him out and closing the door. They crossed the lawn to his car. ‘Oh wow. This is your car?’
‘My dad’s car.’
‘It’s beautiful. What’s it like to drive? Our family just has this big ratty old station wagon that smells of petrol and roars like a hippo when you drive it uphill. Which happens pretty often, because we live on a hill.’
Richard unlocked the car and opened the passenger door for her. She slid into the seat and by the time Richard got to the driver’s door she’d popped that lock.
The light stayed on when Richard closed his door. He checked the dash – ‘I think your door isn’t closed properly.’
‘Oh, man,’ Kirsty bit her lip. ‘I’ll try again.’
‘Don’t be too gentle. It isn’t a China cabinet.’
She tried again and the door closed properly. ‘Success!’
Richard turned on the ignition and pulled out into the road. They were both quiet while he got the car moving. Then the drive was underway and they were both still quiet. Richard thought it was up to him to start a conversation but he didn’t know what to say. The view of the harbour coming down the hill reminded him of the photo on his living room wall.
Kirsty said, ‘It’s a nice night, isn’t it? No clouds.’
‘Yeah. And quiet.’
They drove a little way further. Richard thought about Dennis, who’d clicked that something was up, even faster than Scott by the looks of things. Although Scott probably knew as well, he was much sharper than he seemed. He should tell them tomorrow. It was big news, that he was leaving. It was important.
Kirsty asked, ‘How’s school?’
Richard shrugged. ‘Same as usual, I guess.’
‘Yeah. Likewise. School is always too much of the same.’ Kirsty’s voice sounded a little unsure. ‘All the people, I’m so sick of them all, you know? Well, not really sick of them, but we all know each other so well. We all have our set little patterns of how we fit together, and there’s never any surprises. It’s deadening. Nothing ever changes.’
He had to decide what he was going to do. He had a choice to make. He had to set his own time limit. Was he here until August? Or until Christmas? Or what? He had to decide. If he decided to leave in August he didn’t want people to know he had the option of staying longer. He didn’t want to insult people, make them think he wanted to get away from here. He didn’t want that.
He was driving in silence until Kirsty asked, ‘Where are we going, by the way?’
‘Ah,’ Richard said. ‘Good question. I was just sort of driving.’
‘Hey, that’s fine, if you just want to drive around for a while.’
‘No, it’s Friday night. Plenty of places. Is there somewhere you want to go?’
‘Not really.’ Kirsty furrowed her brow. ‘And is there somewhere you want to go?’
Richard didn’t answer straight away. ‘Somewhere quiet,’ he said eventually.
Kirsty seemed pleased by that. ‘I know just the place.’
They drove towards the Petone foreshore, taking a roundabout route through Hutt central. Kirsty filled in the silence as they drove with a story, one of many about the neighbour’s enormous friendly dog. Richard listened attentively and laughed at the right times but he kept staring ahead, as if the road would transform suddenly the moment he looked away.
They came along the Hutt Road and turned east along the Esplanade. Wellington harbour was on their right, dark like oil, the lights of Wellington city on the far side.
‘So where are we going?’ Richard asked.
Kirsty pulled her eyes forward. ‘Not too far. As soon as the road splits away from the water look for a right turn.’
The intersection she was talking about came into view, and Richard turned right. They drove slowly down a twisting side-street that curved past a sand dune and ended beside an old clubrooms. Richard pulled to a halt and shut off the engine. He and Kirsty sat facing the water.
The rush of waves eased through the initial silence. A car thrummed behind them, distant. Kirsty was finishing her story. ‘He hates people leaving. You can’t let him hear the word goodbye, he must have worked it out somewhere along the line. If he hears the word he jumps up to the door to block the way out and starts barking like crazy.’ He felt her looking at him. ‘He’s gorgeous.’
Richard didn’t answer. He didn’t know what to do. Everything was unfurling like a great sail over the water and he felt it fill as he breathed. He turned towards Kirsty. She was lit softly by the clubrooms security light. He found the girl and now he had to go. He thought he should just kiss her.
‘You all right?’ she asked.
He shrugged. ‘Sorry. I’m a bit distracted.’
Kirsty smiled carefully. ‘What’s up?’
‘I’m going back to the States.’ Richard heard himself say it, surprised to hear the words come out. He saw Kirsty’s face change in reaction. Suddenly there was so much in it that he had no idea what any of it meant.
‘Maybe in August.’
‘August…’ Kirsty blinked twice. ‘Wow. You know, that’s not a small thing.’
‘Probably it isn’t.’
Kirsty put her hand on his. ‘When did you find out?’
‘Yesterday.’ He squeezed her fingers. ‘It’s just crazy in my head. I can’t clear anything, my thoughts are just a mess. A mess.’
‘Oh, man,’ she said. They sat there, hands held, half-facing each other. Then Kirsty leaned in closer and put an arm around him to hug him. He felt her body come up against his. Her head rested by his ear and he could hear her breathing. He shut his eyes. Neither of them moved to break apart.
‘Uh, ‘ Kirsty said awkwardly. ‘I’m twisting too far… ow.’
Richard let go quickly. ‘Sorry – are you – ’
‘I didn’t… It’s made for driving.’
‘Not hugging.’ Kirsty grinned, then bit her lower lip. ‘You know, this isn’t the place I was thinking of yet. A bit further.’
‘Go on then,’ Richard said.
She took his hand.
They were walking on wet sand, seashells crunching into fragments. The surf ran up at them then stopped and fled. They held hands and walked in step.
Richard couldn’t remember meeting Kirsty for the first time. He must have known who she was for years but they’d never spoken more than a few words until Carl’s party. Brett and Mike had got aggro due to alcohol and jealousy and while they were breaking the coffee table, he was outside advising her not to go in just yet. Which got them talking. Which got them here.
The beach narrowed as they approached the very end. The rocks that blocked their way looked like huge calcified crabs. Seawater lapped up to their right and on the left a dune covered with moss and plants extended to a grassy bank. The beach was dwindling to nothing but Kirsty kept going. They passed a huge driftwood log that was half-buried in the sand and she gestured across. Her pale fingers drew his eye into a tiny valley formed from a cleft in the dune, sheltered by a small bush behind, grasses growing in the sandy earth, and the angle was just right to lie on and gaze straight out at the harbour and the island and the city and the sky.
Kirsty pulled away from him. ‘There’s nothing beyond the bank, a backlot for some factory, so it’s all quiet. People don’t come down this far because they figure it just turns into rocks and buildings and the river inlet, but they’re wrong.’
Richard smiled. ‘I’m impressed.’
‘My grandfather and I used to come here when I was really small.’ She sat down on the grass carpet and folded her arms around her knees.
‘Makes it special.’
‘Yeah,’ Kirsty said. ‘Not everything that happened here was good. But it’s my place anyway.’
‘I have places like that. Back home.’
Kirsty was watching him with her head cocked. ‘Come down here where it’s sheltered. The wind’s picking up.’
He stood in the growing breeze, feeling it push around him. The Wellington wind. She’d pulled her hair into a ponytail while in the car, and Richard liked it because it let her face take centre stage. She looked pale and inviting.
He would handle it. It would all work out.
He set himself down right next to her. Then his lips met hers, just a brush. They both froze there, eyes open, holding the moment still. Then Kirsty closed her eyes and Richard pulled her close, and when the first kiss ended another began.