The Hutt Valley was a wedge scooped out of rolling hills. The triangle began with the long Petone shoreline, where the settlers had landed, and continued north between eastern and western hills. To the south, across the large comma-shaped harbour that tailed out into the Cook Strait, was Wellington city. Richard had been a bit surprised when he discovered that the Hutt had a reputation for black jeans and brown faces. Eventually he realised that was because most of the Hutt’s white middle class spent all their time in the city. Lower Hutt wasn’t a suburb, but wasn’t quite its own place either.
St Francis was on a long street lined with green lawns and high walls and European cars in the driveways. Richard walked it with Adam. They were in basketball casuals, school uniforms stuffed in their bags. Another shoot-around after school, this time with James Travers and a couple of guys from form six who were going to try for the team, Lio Manuele in his beanie with his jacket zipped up to his chin, and Ray Atoa, impeccably groomed as always. Richard figured Lio for a good strong forward, especially sharp with rebounding. Ray was a ball handler, with a few nice moves and a deft hand at passing. It had been a promising session. It was coming together.
Richard hitched his thumb under a bag-strap and kept an eye on the clouds. Cars whirred past, the beginning of what passed for rush hour in the Hutt. Sunlight filtered down through the clouds and a breeze rippled the leaves on bushes and trees. Richard could walk this route with his eyes closed if he wanted to. Every weekday he walked to and from school, since he’d arrived five years ago.
And soon he’d be leaving.
Adam stared at his feet and coughed. ‘Have you been thinking about the ball?’
The ball. Prom night. God, not even the slightest, given the other things he had pressing into his thoughts all the time. The ball was a very long way away. ‘No, I really haven’t.’
Richard waited for three cars to pass before following up. He figured that was enough time. ‘You’re asking about the ball because...’
‘Oh, I was just thinking. You know.’ Adam shrugged, his shoulders rising and falling heavily. ‘We’re going to go, though, aren’t we?’
‘I would guess so.’
‘And, well. We’ll go all four of us together?’
‘We have to find partners. To go with.’
Richard had figured where this was headed a few questions back. ‘Yeah. That won’t be a problem.’
‘Maybe not for you,’ Adam said. ‘I mean, I was thinking about it all last night, and I don’t even know where I’d find someone to ask.’
‘There are girls all over the place. Don’t worry about it.’
‘But I don’t know any girls any more. I mean, I can’t talk to any of them. I just end up being that tall guy who follows you and Dennis around. They don’t see me like that.’
‘Like what? Listen, if you’re comparing yourself to Dennis, don’t. They don’t see any of us like they see him. Dennis has that aura thing going on. I don’t know anyone else who has that.’
‘Yeah, well, I know I don’t. And I just keep going around with you guys, and that’s not going to get me anywhere. But I don’t know what will. I don’t know how I can meet anyone else, I don’t know anyone at church now the youth group’s gone. It’s stupid, I know, but I can just see that it’s going to be a disaster.’
‘Don’t stress,’ Richard said. ‘It’s ages away. You just need to find some girl you’re friendly with and ask her. Not even friends, just friendly. Girls love to go to these things and you’re a nice guy, so just relax, okay?’
Adam nodded gloomily as they walked. ‘Are you going to go with Kirsty?’
‘It’s a bit early to start making plans, isn’t it?’
‘She’s nice, isn’t she.’
‘Yep.’ Richard nodded. ‘She is.’
Richard had no idea if she was going to be waiting for him to call. He wasn’t sure he wanted to dial her number. Standing there with the phone in his hand and the number in his head – it was like the number wanted to be dialled. It felt inevitable.
Things over the weekend had been kind of crazy. He hadn’t felt like himself, and everything had gone maybe a little bit too far, too fast. Maybe. He wasn’t sure he did think that. He had no idea what she would be thinking. And he had no idea what he’d say if he called her. Maybe he should ask if she wanted to go somewhere? But then where would they go, and what would he say when they got there? Friday and Saturday had gone in a rush but now they’d both had time to reflect, and he’d reflected. He’d pretty much done nothing else but reflect for the last three days.
As if he didn’t have enough to worry about.
His parents were trying to be relaxed about the move but it wasn’t helping. He didn’t want to start thinking about that, and thinking about Kirsty was a good distraction. Maybe too good. He was overthinking Kirsty and underthinking the fact his life was going to turn completely upside down. He was supposed to be handling this, not falling apart like a kid. And he still hadn’t told the guys. How could he when he didn’t even know how to handle it himself?
He’d always known exactly how it should go. His parents would have said ‘we’re going home’ and he would have nodded sagely and begun folding up his life person by person, telling each one of them how it was going to be, clear and calm. The girls would cry and he’d let them hold him, but only for a little while. Life would grind to a slow and perfect halt, and then he’d turn away from them all and walk on to the plane without looking over his shoulder. That was how he’d always planned it.
Except that life was refusing to stop for him. It was like a fire in the bush, raging out of control. Funny how he hadn’t noticed its tendency to do that.
He couldn’t leave calling too late, or she’d not be waiting. He couldn’t call too early or he’d seem overeager. He couldn’t sit still, which left him pacing helplessly around the room in his socks.
He liked her, of course. And she liked him. It was just everything else that made it complicated.
There was mud in the white carpet. He must have had mud on his shoes. How had he not noticed the mud on his shoes? How distracted was he by all this? Mud in the carpet. On top of everything else it seemed a ridiculous tiny nuisance. This wasn’t how he was. He was meant to be always on top of things, even the little details. Doing things. Making it happen. He snatched up the offending shoe and opened the window, banging it outside to knock the mud away.
The cold air hit his face in a rush. It was dark and the houses were lit up like lanterns. Sods of earth arced away from the shoe, twisting down through the air. Everything was distant. Richard looked sideways and he could almost see her piece of hill.
Handle it. Make it happen. No-one else is going to.
He left the window open and dialled her number.