The sun was burning white into a sheeting blue sky as Richard walked to school a final time. The hills rose up green and mighty on either side, their rumbling feud coming to collision to the north. Behind him was the harbour and beyond that the peninsula on which the city crowded in, and then the open sea. He didn’t need to look. It was like waking up in the night and knowing what each shadow in your bedroom was.
Cars rushed past. Across the road two tiny Polynesian girls in immaculate green uniforms walked hand-in-hand to school. They were singing but car noise drowned them out. A woman jogger passed him. It was cold.
The cars were all on the wrong sides of the road.
A girl was getting closer. Her school uniform was grey and blue and her hair was golden. Each day they passed each other and their eyes would meet for a moment, but they had never spoken. As she came closer Richard realised he knew the rhythm of her walk, he could tick off her steps in his head. He recognised the way the clips held her hair, and the brown gloves that she wore on cold days, and the way she always wore her pack over both shoulders instead of just one.
He had planned things a certain way, right at the beginning. He had already walked away from one life, and it was hard to say goodbye, so he had managed things, every morning of his life here, reminding himself to be careful, to keep things under control, never to forget himself and start to actually care about anyone. And that meant there were only a few people he needed to farewell. And everyone else he knew, they were at a distance, just as they should have been.
Except he wasn’t sure how well he’d succeeded. The guys from school who’d started making him feel so welcome, the neighbours further down the street who’d always stop and talk to him as he passed, the guy behind the counter at the video store who always chatted about the new releases, this girl who ignored him each morning. He had fallen into the trap anyway, despite all his efforts. Maybe it wasn’t even a trap. Maybe life always had its own way.
Her eyes flicked up to his as they always did, and then they went away again, but this time Richard said ‘Hi.’
She faltered. Richard stopped, so she did too. ‘Hi,’ she said guardedly, shading her eyes against the sun.
‘I just wanted to say,’ Richard said, wondering what he wanted to say. ‘This is the last time we’re going to walk past each other.’
Her brow furrowed. ‘Yeah?’
‘I’m going overseas on Monday. So, yeah. Last day at school.’
She moved so she wasn’t looking into the morning sun. ‘Really? Where are you going?’
‘The U.S.’ He shrugged. ‘It used to be home. Can you hear the accent? It’s still there, even after five years.’
‘Five years. That’s a long time, though.’
Richard surveyed the valley again, the cold sun on his cheeks. ‘Yeah. I’ve kind of got used to the place.’
‘Have you liked it here?’
Richard stopped trying, stopped holding on. He’d never needed to. It had been foolish to try. ‘Yeah. I have.’
The girl looked up at him, wondering what to say next. He wondered who she was.
‘So. Just thought I’d stop and say, see you.’
‘But you won’t,’ she said. ‘I mean, that’s just it. You won’t, will you?’
The cars kept going past, channeled by the hills, running like the river towards the sea.
The stone flew high up into the air. It seemed to hang there for a moment, at that highest point in its flight, before dropping back down faster and faster into Dennis’ waiting hands. The stone was smooth, a good size, the kind he could skip across water. Although that didn’t interest him any more.
He threw the stone up again, feeling his arm muscles contrive the best way to launch it, sending it soaring up higher than before. It came down slap into his hands, leaving them smarting from the impact.
He could see his breath. A cold morning. ‘Come on,’ he called. He could hear Joe and Minnie hurrying to get ready. He looked up into the sky, cloudless. A bird wheeled high above.
Richard’s last day. Even after everything he still felt it. Only to be expected, though, he had spent a long time in Richard’s team.
The ball tomorrow, too. Richard’s goodbye. About time he started getting on with things. He suspected he’d been waiting, this whole time. No more of that.
Lauren, tomorrow. Still working on that one. They’d got to talking after church, of all places. Dennis still went most Sundays, and she turned up with Adam’s family. She seemed as surprised to see him as he was to see her. He hadn’t got her measure yet. That was good. A point in favour. The girl had some depth, she was game for anything and she was no fool. Just one way to mark a new start, her. Should probably call her, he thought, to figure out tomorrow. Not that anything really needed sorting. Just because that was how to play the game. But he wasn’t sure if he would.
And Scott was probably going to be a dick about it. Couldn’t help that. His choice. Everyone’s free to choose.
‘Come on, you’re going to be late!’ he called again.
The door opened and Minnie came out in her school gear. Joe was nowhere to be seen behind her. ‘He’s taking forever,’ she said.
Dennis walked up to the door. ‘All right, I’m leaving. You’re going to have to walk.’
He got in the car, let Minnie in the passenger side, and by the time he’d started the engine Joe was clambering into the back. ‘Sorry, sorry.’
’so you should be. Get your belt on.’
The car’s exhaust billowed up into the atmosphere, smoke pluming and dissolving. The bird turned circles high above. Dennis waited for his brother.
Time to start making new choices.
St Francis’ College was an architectural hodgepodge, a crazy sprawl of odds and ends and do-ups and refurbs and prefabs, and on his last day Richard finally noticed it. He saw how this building had the concrete walls and skinned-knee steps of a nineteen-fifties block, how that section had been extended in the eighties. As he walked through the campus it shrank and separated around him, wary. The buildings whispered to each other behind his back.
Third formers played soccer with a tennis ball around the brightly-painted kiln. They were impossibly young. One of them kicked it hard and it flew over the goalie into the bushes behind. He remembered the games he had played with Scott and Dennis and Adam, glanced fondly at a shrub that had barely survived one particularly enthusiastic melee.
The mystifying geography of the school opened itself up to him. When he’d first come he could never work out which way was north, except from the senior’s common room of the time, where a compass had been painted on the ceiling. That had been in a pre-fab that was now being used for social studies. The people who had leaned against its windows while Richard looked in had been men. He supposed he was one of those men, now, to the kids chasing after their ball.
The current common room was empty except for Mark Keyes. He was asleep and drooling on the newer of the two couches. It seemed a sad place without people. He knew he would remember the common room as it usually was, packed with obnoxious camaraderie and discarded junk food packets, warmed by someone’s junkstore heater since the wall heaters had been broken in the second week. The neon lights all worked but over the first two months the bulbs were all smashed in a series of unforeseeable accidents involving frisbees. Kane and Phil had co-ordinated a series of replacement-borrowings from junior-school classrooms, and so there was always light.
Today the blackboard was decorated with a caricature of Julian, his crotch bulging and enormous. Richard knew it was Julian because the hair was drawn curly and there were glasses sketched in. The distinctive, detailed effort on the crotch meant it could only have been drawn by Shane. Richard searched around for some chalk (also supplied by Phil and Kane, as were the street signs and traffic cones that served as decorations and trophies) and pressed on some words beside Julian’s arm. Mark grunted as the sound woke him, and he watched Richard finish without bothering to close his mouth.
Richard dusted off his hands and grinned at Mark. Mark stared back, then sank back into the sofa to close his eyes again. His mouth remained open.
Phil and James came in the door from outside, eyes adjusting. ‘Richard! Out of uniform!’ Phil said with a sly grin. ‘Well you know the price of that, fifty demerits!’
‘Talking to your betters in an overfamiliar manner – one hundred demerits!’ Phil circled the room and dropped his bag on Mark’s chest, causing him to grunt with discomfort. ‘Failing to kick Mark in the head for being a big stoned clown – nine hundred demerits!’
James laughed. ‘You better watch out, Richard. You might get expelled.’
Phil noticed the blackboard. Richard had drawn a globe with an exaggerated USA on it, and sticking out of the heartland was a giant New Zealand flag. ‘Aw, brings a tear to the eye,’ Phil said.
‘Chumps?’ said James, reading.
Kane slammed the inside door open and rambled through. ‘What is it hey?’ He elbowed past James to read the caption. ‘ “I am bringing the baboons north take care chumps Richard” what the fuck?’
‘Richard’s last day, genius,’ said Phil.
‘I know that!’ Kane snapped. ‘Your last day Richard eh? Well you better make sure you get good and pissed in our memories when you get over there all right?’
‘I’ll see you tomorrow night,’ Richard said, ‘I can get good and pissed for you then.’
Phil cut in to explain: ‘No, Rich, see, he knows that, but he has to tell you this now because tomorrow night he won’t be able to form coherent sentences.’
‘Nah I’m fucking serious!’ Kane said, swiping at Phil in irritation. ‘And I am gonna get so mothered tomorrow night but anyway you go over there and each year you put aside an evening to get completely shitfaced and you dedicate each Bud to us okay?’
Richard laughed. ‘Count on it.’
‘One for each of the seventh form one for Phil one for Mark one for James one for me one for Luke one for Scott one for Adam...’ Kane was on a roll. ‘Fucking Bud! I got a joke about Bud Richard why are American beers like having sex in a canoe because they’re fucking close to water!’ He collapsed on to the other sofa with a self-congratulatory burp. Mark opened one eye to look, so Kane took off a shoe and threw it hard at him. ‘Wake the fuck up it’s Richard’s last day he’s gonna have a beer for you over there!’ Mark responded with his middle finger, so Kane sent his second shoe over, this time catching Mark just above the eye.
Then Shane burst into the room like a blockage from a pipe, landing in a two-foot centre-stage stance. ‘All right all right shut up shut up shut up!’ His grin was, if anything, even more terrifying than usual. ‘How do you stop a dog from humping your leg?’
Shane’s sunglasses flashed. ‘Pick it up and suck its dick!’ Everybody laughed as Shane gyrated. ‘Do you want another one?’
‘Fuck you!’ Kane yelled back.
Phil shook his head. ‘It’s Richard’s last day, Pennywise.’
Shane affected a hugely startled face, then lifted his sunglasses. ‘Fuuuck!’ he said, perhaps unable to think of anything better to say. ‘And you drew another drawing! Did you see my drawing of Julian and his cock? Of course I had to Sistine Chapel over that cock so the churchgoers wouldn’t get all horny, but this cock was much more impressive than any by Michaeldimaggio! Artistic tragedy! So what does this say, you’re going to be the baboon ambassador to the United States are you? I hope you get to meet the President so you can display your genitals to him like a good monkey!’ He mimed dropping his pants and thrusting his groin out at the President of the United States. ‘Pleased to meet you, bitch! Your wife’s ass is a sexy shade of blue!’
Kane tried to drown him out, ‘Fuck up, Pennywise!’
Shane responded by screaming as loud as he could, ‘Saint Francis boys are hung like rogue baboons! Ba-boon! Ba-boon! Ba-boon! Ba-boon!’ Oddly enough, Kane was the first person to join the chant and suddenly the six of them were thumping their feet and screaming out ‘Ba-boon! Ba-boon!’ with Shane whirling and crotch-pumping in the middle like a demented high priest.
‘What is going on here?’ came a sudden, stern voice, its sheer efficiency bringing silence. All eyes went to the door which was filled by the imposing form of Chris Tala. He stomped in, dropped his bag, ripped off his shirt to expose a tee-shirt with stylised Hawaiian warriors on it, and began to pound his chest. The chanting resumed, and everyone joined in, leaping and loping and slapping each other.
Shane rounded on Richard. ‘Richie! You going stag to the ball? Seriously? We could get a nice dress for your hand if you like. She’s so sexy!’
‘You have a date, Shane?’
‘Fuck yes I do! I was going to go with James’ little sister but she was intimidated by the size of my cock, so she went for Scott instead, his cock is tiny compared to mine and not as scary for a little girl. So then I was going to go with James’ mother except she’s out of the country again having sex in aeroplane toilets. So then I thought I would go as a gay with James and fuck him in the ass in the limo on the way but his dumb girlfriend said she would staple my ballbags to my legs if I tried, sorry James! So I’m going with some other dumb bitch. Boo yah!’
James came over. ‘What did you say about my mother, you dick?’
‘I said she tastes like watermelon when you stick your tongue in!’ Shane started dancing again. ‘Hey, that Scott Collins is going to bang your sister after the ball! How does that make you feel, Jamesie?’
‘Going with my sister? Good luck to him.’ James shook his head and caught Richard’s eye. ‘He’s gonna fucking need it.’
The day was cold enough that the field hadn’t descended into mud, not yet at least. The earth felt solid underfoot.
Scott was taking the cross-field shortcut between classes when James fell into step beside him. He felt his insides knot but he maintained a neutral expression. He hadn’t exactly been avoiding James, but he hadn’t found a way to bring up the whole Paula situation with him, either.
‘So,’ James said, ‘you didn’t think you should’ve asked permission before asking my sister to my ball?’
He was joking. It was okay. ‘It crossed my mind. But if you said no then I’m screwed to find a partner, so, tough biscuits.’
‘Hey, I’m kidding man. I don’t give a shit. Just I didn’t think you even knew her.’
‘Well, I don’t, not that good at least.’ Scott shrugged, risking a friendly glance at James. ‘But she’s okay company, right? More than most girls I’ve met.’
James shrugged. ‘If you say so. Annoying little bitch, sometimes, though, be warned. And promise me one thing, hey? Keep her out from under my toes.’
‘Deal,’ Scott said. They kept on down the corridor, and Scott was relaxed with the whole thing now. They came to the end, made to go separate directions.
‘She’s quite excited,’ James said. ‘She likes the idea of crashing in on my scene and dressing up pretty and all that stuff. At the same time as she says she thinks it’s stupid, you know? Little sisters. You have a little sister?’
Scott nodded. ‘Sandra.’
‘Then you’ll understand, huh. I hope she behaves herself, anyway. If she gives you any shit, just get me and the boys, we’ll sort her out.’
‘Yeah, well, I don’t think it’ll come to that.’
‘You really don’t know her that well, do you?’ James was smiling in a different way. ‘God, I can’t imagine what that’d be like, going to the ball with someone I hardly know. Dennis is doing the same, isn’t he? Crazy fucker. He could have anyone in the valley and he goes for someone he barely knows.’
‘Yeah, I heard that. He’s not easy to understand.’
‘Tell me about it! You guys have been friends way longer than we have, and you are pretty on to it about stuff like this, right? So it’s kind of reassuring that he puzzles all fuck out of you too.’ James shook his head. ‘I don’t know. I’ve got Sasha, I’m happy. You single people are fucking confusing. Later, man.’
Scott walked away with James’ words repeating over and over in his head: She’s quite excited.
She’s quite excited.
Form time after lunch. Richard was on the floor by the armchair that Scott had taken, with Adam kneeling close by. Mrs Denning clumped into the room in her chunky brown lace-ups. She clutched her clipboard to her belly and waved students out of her way. ‘Shut up! Let’s get this over with, shall we?’ Voices fell to whispers. ‘As you all no doubt know, tonight is pick-up of suits for those of you who ordered them through the school. Room seventeen after the final bell! Don’t go if you didn’t order a suit, it’ll be confusing enough!’
Shane with his trademark grin: ‘Are you picking up your suit there Mrs Denning?’
‘Be quiet, Shane!’ she shouted even before he’d finished speaking. ‘Next thing, it has come to my attention that some of you are missing a significant proportion of your classes! I remind you that final exams are just around the corner, and I hope that this reminder will be enough to restore your enthusiasm for attending!’ There was general chatter and Mark Keyes got pushed hard from behind into the middle of the floor. Mrs Denning continued quickly so Mark wouldn’t have time to start up. ‘Third thing!’ Mark settled for a middle finger at the culprit as he resumed his position against the wall.
‘You’re getting your man-organ operation at last?’ Shane guessed.
Mrs Denning overrode him again. ‘Third thing, it’s Richard’s last day. I thought we might take a moment to give him a proper farewell since tomorrow night we’ll all have other things on our minds?’
Richard looked up in surprise. Mrs Denning gave him an innocent look and a genuine smile. Everyone was looking at him, and someone yelled out ‘Speech!’ Rich shook his head which just started up more people. He could pick out Phil, ‘Say something, Rich!’, and Shane, ‘Speeeak! Spray out your froth of wisdom! Hahahaha!’, but it was Scott who made him do it, hauling him off the floor by the sleeve. Richard stuck his hands in his pockets and the place fell silent.
‘Uh… well, yeah, I guess you all know the plane leaves Monday morning. So this is just about it for me. But I’ll be at the Ball, and I’ll see you all there?’ He caught a look from Dennis. The wiry figure wasn’t blinking. ‘I guess I should say that you guys and this school were pretty much my whole life these past few years. So thanks for that. Um. I don’t really know what else to say. Bye?’
Phil sauntered forward. ‘Rich, we all chipped in for this. For remembering us, not that you’ll need much help.’ He relinquished centre stage to Dennis, who produced a large grey-and-blue rugby jersey and unfurled it like a banner. ‘A boys of SFC top,’ Phil explained. ‘We all signed the arms.’
‘I signed in your left armpit!’ Shane called out.
Phil pointed at the crest. ‘And see, it even has a little baboon on it.’
‘And also in your right armpit!’ Shane called out.
Richard started laughing. He looked at the miniature baboon logo, at the scrawled signatures, at the St Francis name emblazoned on the front and the name ‘Rich’ on the back with a giant number eight, his basketball number. People were saying things to him, and gathering around, but Richard searched over the fabric. He saw Scott’s name encircling the left cuff, and Adam’s on that shoulder, and following the seam of the right arm almost too small to read he found the last. It read ‘never stop – Den’.
Water launched from the drinking fountain’s spout and Adam caught it in his mouth, sucking down gulps as it spilled over his cheeks. He shut off the fountain and crossed a trail of departing students, wiping his face dry as he went. A bunch of third formers surged towards him, released en masse from the music classroom. They gave him space. He headed down the far drive and went around the gymnasium to the basketball court.
Richard stood there alone, bouncing a school-issue basketball. Staying in the shadows, Adam watched as he picked up the ball at the top of the three-point arc and released it smoothly. It sank neatly through the hoop.
‘Hey,’ Adam called. ‘Practising for the game tonight?’
Richard mopped sweat from his brow and collected the ball. ‘Not really.’
‘It’s do or die. We need to win this to advance.’
‘I know,’ Adam said. ‘Aren’t you picking up a suit?’
‘Got my Dad’s.’
Adam sauntered over. ‘My Dad doesn’t even have a suit like that, I don’t think.’
‘Schmoozing at swank parties is part of my Dad’s job description.’
‘I just wanted to check about tonight. It’s all on?’
Richard held the ball. ‘It’s all on.’ He dropped another perfect three-pointer. Adam watched silently as Richard retrieved the ball. ‘I’m saying goodbye to the hoop,’ he explained. ‘I’ve played a lot of ball on these rims, I want to go out on a high.’
Adam smiled. ‘Well, you can’t go out much higher than with two swish three-pointers, huh?’
Richard weighed the ball in his hand and gripped it tight between splayed fingers. He set his feet and gazed at the rim and then he began to run. He threw his feet forward and went faster at the backboard, one arm cradling the ball and the other pumping as he jumped, up lifting the ball fingers wide to control as he lifted and stuffed it through the rim. The ball dropped. Richard hung on to the rim with one hand. Then he swung his other arm up to get a good grip and hoisted his chin up through the goal, his eyes shut like he was praying, and Adam believed just for a moment that he would never come down.
Richard dropped to the hardwood floor of the Naenae gymnasium, bringing the big attacking forward down with him. No whistle. Ray scooped up the ball and fired it up court to Tane, who was streaking for the fast break. Damon’s grin was larger than it had ever been, with Francis up eight in the first half. This against a team that would finish at the top of the table regardless of what happened tonight.
The bench was roaring. Scott was on his feet, James and Adam hollering from their seats, Viane and Chris pounding a rhythm into the hardwood with their feet. The SFC crowd was cheering too, Paula and Phil and Sasha amongst them. Just over from them was Dennis, smiling proudly and clapping.
‘Pick up men!’ Lio screamed.
‘I got ten,’ Richard said, hardly sounding puffed, sweat pouring off him.
The Naenae guard dished low to Lio’s man while number ten ripped through Richard with a cheap grab. ‘Foul!’ Damon hollered. Lio couldn’t stop the inlet pass, right under the hoop. Richard rushed to recover but number ten was already rising, his hands shooting up to the basket.
The ball wasn’t in them.
Everyone in the gymnasium glanced down and saw Kelvin holding the basketball to his belly and grinning. Cheering grew.
Naenae threw down a zone defence and Francis came back at them, Ray driving in but the ball going out of bounds off a Naenae player. The ref whistled in a timeout, and the Francis squad leapt into the huddle. Damon was clapping, ‘yeah, excellent work, excellent work. Be careful, they’ll come back on us, they’re a championship team but we’re gonna win. They know it and they’re freaked out by it.’
‘Come on,’ Lio said, ‘hands in, hands in. This is our game okay? It’s finals time!’
Scott and James subbed in for Richard and Tane. They slapped hands as they took the court.
Scott was rubbing his hands. ‘Let’s keep the pressure up, huh?’
‘Let’s do it, buddy,’ James replied.
Lio was talking it up as he prepared to inbound. ‘Watch out, they’ve subbed on a whole new team. I’m scared now, mostly of number nine. Who you most scared of, Scott?’
Scott was in his element. ‘Yeah, that number nine has that little pussy moustache thing going on, very fucking scary…’
The ball came in to James who moved it to Kelvin and cut to the basket. The simple give-and-go worked like Naenae had never seen it before and James put his first points on the board. On the way back downcourt Lio slapped his rear: ‘Now that’s what I’m talking about!’
‘That’s not all we’re talking about,’ Scott said. ‘We’re talking finals, boys! Finals!’ He was exhilarated, jumpy, adrenaline getting higher, and when he looked over and saw Paula in the stands he almost stopped breathing. She was looking at him, waving! Scott flashed her a hand. She was really sexy and she was waving at him. He’d been so dumb about that whole thing. Angsting about Lauren, when she’d been right under his nose the whole time.
Scott took up his zone by the arc and looked at the scoreboard, forty-eight to forty-four. Richard had just got a block to regain the possession, and now he was being fed the ball on the post and there was the drop-step and hook. Damon was out of his seat, ‘Where’s the foul! Where’s the foul!’
Scott picked up his man at halfway and went in when the ball swung over, but a three popped up before he could get near enough to stop it. It dropped smoothly through the net. Damon’s voice, ‘Wake up, Francis!’ Scott sprinted back and saw himself through Paula’s eyes. He set his jaw and cut through the lane, palms open to Ray for a feed, and the ball came in. Controlling his step he picked it up and launched himself for a finger roll, and felt ligaments wrench as his arm was hacked down by a Naenae defender. He was strong, he wouldn’t stop. His body collided with the defender and his fingers turned just right and the ball went up, rattled around the hoop, and dropped. The whistle went. And one. The crowd were cheering.
The ball rotated out to a Naenae guard who fired up an uncontested three, which missed and landed in Richard’s hands. He held the ball above his head and the hooter sounded. Lio roared. ‘Finals time!’
Scott jogged over to join a sudden pile of bodies with Richard at the centre, jumping and whooping and clapping and punching each other. Supporters found their way over, Ray’s girlfriend kissing him fiercely and Sasha and Phil joining James, and Scott knew Paula was there when she tapped him on the shoulder. ‘I was so excited! What a great game!’ She was smiling perfectly, and Scott hoped Adam and Richard were jealous. ‘I can’t wait for the finals!’
‘And the victory party afterwards,’ Scott suggested.
‘Hey,’ Richard called. ‘We better get moving, guys, got places to go…’
Scott looked apologetic. ‘I gotta move, going to the Caster concert for Richard’s last night with the boys.’
Paula jiggled her shoulders unhappily. ‘Oh. Well, I guess I’ll get to see you tomorrow then?’
‘Yeah, absolutely! Um, how are we gonna do that?’
She stroked her neck. ‘Oh, just meet me at the preball at the Johnsons’? I’ll catch a lift there with James and Sash.’
‘Okay, excellent idea. That’s that then.’ Paula seemed to be waiting for him to say something else. He racked his brains.
‘Okay, I’m going now,’ she said suddenly, and disappeared.
Scott watched her go and shook his head. ‘Women. I don’t get ‘em.’
Richard nodded. ‘Except by paying.’
Dennis was sitting back in his bleacher seat, smugly ignoring the Naenae supporters milling around him. Damon Taylor was nearby, gathering gear into a bag, so he hauled himself up and wandered over. ‘Coach.’
Damon turned. ‘Aw, hey, Dennis, how you doing?’
‘I’m okay. Man, the team is doing great. Into the semis, huh? That’s awesome.’
‘Yeah, it’s good, man.’
‘Listen, I just want to apologise for ditching the team. I had some personal stuff going on, you know.’
Damon shrugged. ‘Basketball is basketball. If life didn’t make room for it, that’s what happened.’
‘Things always happen, coach. And I just go and let them.’
Damon nodded. ‘Look, we both know how it is, right? You can’t control your life. You can just make choices, and stick by them. Decide what’s right for you and go there. Adjust. Just like on the court.’
‘Yeah, I guess.’ Dennis looked at his shoes. ‘Thanks, coach.’
‘S’alright.’ Damon gave him a toothy grin. ‘You take care out there. I’ll see you after we win the finals, huh?’
Damon nodded. ‘And you’re buying. Walk out on my team, will ya?’
The ground floor of the Wellington Town Hall was packed tightly with sweaty teenagers and the occasional adult. The gallery was angry with crowds. On the stage roadies scurried cables past the drum kit. Everyone was waiting. ‘Where to?’ Scott asked. ‘Frontwards?’
Richard shrugged. ‘Fine by me.’
Adam realised they were both looking at him. He looked at the front. There’d be a great view from that close. ‘Whatever you reckon.’
Dennis slapped Adam’s back and started in. Scott slipped in behind, letting Dennis find the way. Adam let Richard do the same for him as they pressed inwards, squeezing through checked shirts and dirty tees. Everyone seemed to have shoulder-length hair except them, except the girls, who mostly wore their hair short.
The further in they got, the bigger the guys got. Adam wondered briefly if it wouldn’t be better watching from the back. Then he almost tripped over some kids moving sideways. One of them apologised quickly in a voice that hadn’t quite broken. Adam smiled to himself. He could handle it.
‘You all right back there?’ Scott called. They were about a three-point shot from the front centre. Adam waved back, ignoring the looks he got. He stared at the stage and the people packed upstairs. So many other young people in the city, all taking time out of their lives to see this concert. All of them would have their own little circles of friends and their own politics and upheavals. It was funny to think of it, how out of all these possibilities he’d ended up with Scott and Dennis and Richard. If his parents had found another house, if they’d decided public school not Catholic, if he hadn’t recognised Dennis from primary school… but instead of all those things he was here.
The lights started to dim. Adam felt the crowd around him start to move. Arms pressed into him from behind and the space in front opened so he moved forward, steadying himself with a hand on Richard’s back. An undertow of noise, excited, anticipatory, and the bodies kept pressing in until Adam was so much closer to the stage but stuffed up hard against Richard’s shoulder, Scott’s and Dennis’ heads further up, and the front seemed to collapse a bit more and they all stumbled forward as one mass. It was dark and the noise grew. Adam tried to work out where to put his arms. He was probably cutting off someone’s view and that was tough for them. Thousands of eyes stared at the dark stage, murmurs and rustles and there was movement in the darkness, body shapes at instruments and the rustle rose to a roar and the roar exploded into a cheer and Adam joined in the noise, and there were detonations, white lights strobing and there on stage were the members of Caster at their instruments, ready, looking to the centre where the singer lifted his arm ready to strike and over the cheers he spoke: ‘Let’s go!’
A wall of noise rushed over the mass like a tidal wave, and Adam felt the crowd around him shift and lift and rise as one.
The top of Mt Victoria after dark was always very windy but rarely deserted. It was too obvious a make-out spot to actually be a good one, so it tended to be more a destination for young timewasters and horny thirtysomethings who didn’t know any better. There was a big carpark next to an enormous set of steps which took climbers to the lookout proper and, as none of the other visitors seemed interested in making the ascent, the foursome had it to themselves. Richard tore off a hunk of fresh paprika loaf and ate. The view was incredible, the bright burning bustle of Courtenay Place, black hills and blacker harbour and the flat distant haze of the Hutt. It was icy cold, their sweat-drenched t-shirts hugging the chill against them.
‘Can you make out the place where the ball is?’ Adam asked. ‘It’s on the waterfront at Petone, right?’
‘Fuuuuck!’ Scott cried out, plummeting off a bench. ‘Asshole!’
‘Lose your balance, Collins?’ Dennis mocked. He was still perched on the edge, waving his arms for balance.
‘Fucker,’ Scott said, rushing at him. Dennis, smaller, dodged easily and leapt up on the circular wall. ‘Slippery cunt!’
‘Best kind,’ Dennis said. He ran around the wall at full speed, the others watching.
Scott tried a few steps as well before giving up. ‘Shit, I’m not fucked enough for this.’
‘What have you guys taken?’ Richard asked. ‘Dennis, you holding out on us?’
‘We’re on paprika,’ Dennis called out. ‘Straight to the synapse!’
Adam watched them play. ‘It’s a good night, isn’t it?’
Richard sucked in a deep, satisfying breath. ‘Only us could have a night like this.’
Adam frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, we’re different. We’re different to most people, us four. We’re smart, we’re fast, we can make our own fun out of nothing.’
‘Alchemy,’ said Adam. He rubbed a bruise on his shoulder. ‘I wonder if this is from the game or the concert?’
‘You took some hard knocks in that game. Doesn’t it seem like forever ago already?’
‘It’s hard to believe this has all been in one night. In one day! Rich, you’ve finished school! Does it feel weird?’
‘I guess. But then everything feels weird at the moment, so it doesn’t stand out.’
‘But does this feel weird?’
‘No more than anything else. Why?’
Adam seemed disappointed with that. ‘Well, I don’t know.’ He crumpled up the bread bag carefully. ‘It’s just, kind of our last time out together.’
‘No, that’s different. Dennis will have all the other guys and you’ll be saying goodbye and Scott will have Paula.’
‘You’ll have Kirsty.’
‘Do you like her?’
Richard smiled to himself. ‘Like her like her.’
‘Uh…’ Adam looked at the floor. ‘Maybe. But look, that’s not what I was saying. I mean that tomorrow we’ll all be split up. So tonight is the end of us. Right now. And it doesn’t feel weird to you?’
Richard leaned back, looking at the cloudy sky. ‘It feels a bit sad, yeah. And it also feels good.’
‘You know, I thought all this would be a lot harder to deal with,’ Richard said. ‘Leaving all of you and all of this. But it hasn’t really, I’ve just had to get caught up in the momentum and it’s all worked out. So it doesn’t feel that weird at all.’
‘It feels weird to me.’
Richard waited for him to continue and he didn’t. ‘Why? Isn’t this the right way to say goodbye?’
‘It’s not even that you’re going,’ Adam said suddenly. ‘It’s not even that. But it’s the last night for all of us. Not just you, but all of us.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Dennis and Scott… we’re all drifting apart. And school’s gonna end soon, and then that’ll be that. You know?’
There was nothing Richard could say. Dennis and Scott continued their clowning but Richard wasn’t sure what was underneath it any more. He blew out a breath then, and it glided out over the city, slowly putting out the burning lights.