Fire sputtered, over and over. An older guy, trying to light his cigarette. Scott could have done with one, help calm his nerves. Of course he couldn’t.
The ferry terminal was set on reclaimed land. The building had no charm, Scott thought, it was a great big barn with seats in, and after dark the lights gave it a yellow cast that sat uneasily with the blue décor. Probably designed to calm people down, blue like water. It just made Scott antsy. He was antsy enough, anyway, he didn’t need further incitement.
The clouds had been threatening rain all day but they were holding, which was one good thing. Scott leaned against the wall, interlacing his fingers, while Adam and his father waited on a long row of uncomfortable seats. Mr Curtis was gazing patiently at the silent newscast but Adam was a bit restless. ‘What’s the time now?’
Mr Curtis pulled his shirt-sleeve back. ‘It’s seven forty-five. Why aren’t you wearing your watch?’
Mr Curtis considered this. ‘How did you manage that?’
Adam shrugged. ‘I don’t know, I just forgot.’
Mr Curtis turned his head to use Scott as an audience for his reply. ‘Well, you’re lucky I’m here with my watch. When you don’t know what time it is, Adam, you don’t just inconvenience yourself, you inconvenience others.’
Scott didn’t want to point out that they were all sitting under a gigantic clock. It would just make things less comfortable. Apparently Adam and his parents were engaged in some kind of cold war, feuding over Adam’s thoughts about what he’d do the next year. Huh. A whole different order of problems to Scott’s home life. Anyway, there was a time and place for stirring up shit, and this was neither.
Mr Curtis had kept talking, his tone shifting completely. ‘Amazing, really. In just a hundred years our society has reached the point that it can’t function unless we all know the very minute of the day. Isn’t that amazing, Scott?’
Scott nodded. ‘Amazing.’ Banal, actually, he thought. He hated being dishonest. It was one of the reasons he avoided Adam’s parents whenever possible. Yet he was here, in what was developing into a classic case of good-idea-at-the-time.
Adam stood up, gave Scott a significant look. ‘Dad, I’m going to go for a walk, all right?’
’don’t go far.’
They walked outside the building, on to the docks, where heavy wooden piles drove down into the water. The fluttering surface of the water reflected the lights from the waterfront, from the city. Scott kicked a discarded can off the dock. It was cold and they could see their breath spinning out from them. Around from them were the other docks and the wharves, ships and boats bobbing in the swell, the whole place weightless and hollow. Out on the water was a configuration of golden running lights. The Strait crossing had been forecast an easy one tonight, clear skies and little wind, but biting cold nonetheless. Scott hadn’t liked being out on the water, the few times he had been. It was too unsteady, too out of control, every tip and pitch a reminder of how big the forces out there were.
They watched the ferry as it inched closer. The lights were golden but it still seemed dark, perhaps empty, like a ghost ship.
‘So what are we going to do tonight?’ Adam asked.
Scott shrugged. ‘Have you spoken to Richard? We could just go out somewhere.’
‘I think there’s another party.’
‘I don’t think so.’ Another crappy drinking fest with Dennis and his sycophants was not Scott’s idea of a good night.
The concrete below Scott seemed to be pitching and rolling, just the tiniest amount, and he had to look and check to make sure it was just his imagination. Just his mind playing tricks, inner ear noise, but it spooked him. The ferry rode up closer, enormous and metallic as it eased into the berth. The wash of water against it was a sound from sleep and the vessel was dreamlike or perhaps nightmarish. It filled his sight so high and his ears with its hush, and in the dream he’d be outside in the wind the sky black like a roof, everything would be black and it would sweep forwards and he wouldn’t turn away. There would be no fire and no sky, just sheets of cold wet metal and a silence as immense as the night itself.
Creepy damn feeling.
Mr Curtis was waiting for them at the gateway that was already disgorging travellers from the crossing, ruddy-faced and well-wrapped. Mr Curtis waved to make sure they saw him. Adam gave him the smallest nod in return, and they went to join him.
Scott searched the faces coming through. He had rehearsed about six different things to say, and they were all completely absent from his mind. He needed to calm down.
Lauren appeared in the crowd, grinniing. Scott took a deep breath. Here goes, he thought. First day of the rest of your life.
She dodged a pair of old ladies and ducked over to them, threw her arms around Adam. ‘Hey big man!’
Mr Curtis put out his hand in greeting. ‘Hello, Lauren, did you survive that all right?’
Lauren dived past the hand and gave him a hug as well. ‘It was fine! No-one threw up anywhere, so that was good.’ She let go and noticed Scott. ‘Hey! Didn’t expect a welcome committee!’
Scott wasn’t sure what to do, handshake or hug or whatever. He thought she was going to hug him too but he sort of put his shoulders in a way that stalled her. Not exactly what he intended. ‘Yeah, Richard and I were hanging out with Adam earlier today, so I tagged along.’
‘Nice one!’ Lauren said. She didn’t hug him. ‘Let’s get my stuff, eh?’
They went towards the baggage reclaim, with a while to wait. Lauren chatted about people she’d met on the crossing, an old couple from Tauranga, a trio of Dutch backpackers with whom she’d played cards. She threw Scott a look: ‘Hope you’ve been working on your poker face, mate.’
Adam mentioned the calm weather. Lauren groaned and poked him in the side. About a decade before, Adam explained to Scott, they’d both gotten seasick on the ferry crossing. It had apparently been a defining moment.
Lauren made a face. ‘I don’t reckon too many best friends became best friends while chucking up all over each other, eh?’
Three blond guys turned up and got her attention, the backpackers presumably. Lauren shook all their hands and wished them well, and by the time she was done with that her bags had appeared. Lauren snatched up the biggest one for herself, and Adam got the other. Scott felt mildly helpless. She flashed Adam a winsome smile then fell into step with Mr Curtis, chatting away. Adam and Scott followed them out into the biting cold.
In the car, Lauren took the front passenger seat, and Scott ended up directly behind her. It wasn’t the best seat. He stared at her neck through the gap in the chair. They started out on to the motorway. ‘Well,’ Mr Curtis said with emphasis, ‘welcome back to the North Island.’
‘Oh, you’re so good to have me, really. I promise, it’s just until I find a job and a flat, I’ll be out of your hair in no time.’
‘Now that’s nonsense,’ Mr Curtis said. ‘It is no trouble at all to put you up. To be entirely honest, I think Mary appreciates having another woman about the house.’
‘I’m not surprised, with you boys running rampant everywhere!’ Lauren said it wickedly so Mr Curtis would get the joke. He did and laughed heartily.
‘Besides which,’ Mr Curtis continued, ‘the house has quite enough room for you. It is a shame to waste that space! So there’ll not be another word about that, is that clear?’
Mr Curtis drove at a sensible speed. Lauren chattered on about the latest family news while Mr Curtis nodded and smiled and laughed as appropriate. Scott, silent in the back, alternated his gaze between the deep bush of the hillside and the curve of Lauren’s shoulder. He almost jumped when Lauren twisted about in her seat to address him and Adam. ‘Hey, you guys! How’re things?’
Adam sounded happy. He’d sounded happier from the moment she’d turned up, actually. ‘I guess I’ve been pretty good.’
‘I hope you haven’t been studying too hard. Living your life enough?’
‘I keep it all balanced, sort of.’
Mr Curtis apparently deemed that an appropriate moment to chime in. ‘Adam has been making some difficult choices about priorities, and he’s facing some even more difficult decisions. But these are the decisons that help us mature, aren’t they.’
Lauren, still facing backwards, rolled her eyes playfully. ‘I’m sure Adam won’t have any trouble with his priorities, he’s been brought up with a solid sense of what’s important.’
Scott leaned forward. ‘So, what about you? How have you been then?’
‘Me? All pretty boring. I’ve been working all year and it was slowly driving me crazy. Started out part-time but I’ve been full-time over the last couple months to get some savings together. I tell you, handing in notice was such the sweetest feeling, eh.’
‘It is important to be happy in your work,’ Mr Curtis agreed, slowing to turn the car up the hill road. ‘What exactly were you doing?’
‘Nothing glam. Serving at this little coffee shop, a little job that I scored with my big smile. Mostly old people, which is fine but they all loved to have a chat with me and some days I just was not in the mood. And it would always be those days they’d bring out their clichéd small-town rants, like they could sense I was getting grumpy.’
‘Small town rants?’ prompted Scott. He sat forward as the car shifted gear for the climb.
‘Oh, yeah, all the classic stuff. Unquestioning obedience to your elders, deference to Old Mother England, enough pandering to the greedy Maoris. All that stuff. Oh yeah, check out that view!’
Adam and Scott both turned as well to look out the back window, and the patchwork of streetlights and houselights over the valley floor, and the dark slick of harbour beyond, seemed suddenly beautiful with Lauren wondering at it.
Although Lauren had switched back around by now. She was pointing sideways as the car passed a small picnic area. ‘And the playground! Some fun times there with you and Mikey, Adam. Remember playing tag around the slide! And I ripped open my knees and had to get a stitch! That was awesome.’
‘You know, Lauren, he prefers to be called Michael, now,’ said Mr Curtis.
‘Or Mike,’ Adam said.
Mr Curtis was firm. ‘I think he prefers Michael.’
Scott could see her ear, around the edge of the headrest, as she looked out the window.
They reached the Curtis driveway and pulled in. Lauren was first out and she stretched and inhaled deeply. It was freezing cold but she didn’t seem to notice. Mr Curtis was concerned. ‘Get yourself inside, Lauren. Adam and I will get your things.’ He was already disappearing into the trunk as he finished speaking.
‘Here, I’ll do it,’ Scott said, not wanting to be left out this time.
Lauren bounded over to hug Adam again. ‘Nice to see you again, cousin!’
‘And you,’ Adam said, happy.
‘Well, go on then, my bags are getting cold!’
She stuck out her tongue at Adam. Adam gave her a friendly shove and she skipped ahead to the front door and let herself in.
Scott hefted her bag out of the boot, watching after her. She left the door hanging open, sucking great gulps of cold air into the house. ‘She hasn’t changed, has she?’ Mr Curtis said, shaking his head.
‘Nope,’ Adam said.
Scott just smiled.
He’d been friends with Adam for five years or so. Scott wasn’t sure if he’d ever, in that whole time, been up at Adam’s house without either Richard or Dennis along to ease things. It was hard to relax in this house, there were too many quiet rules that guests were politely allowed to break.
He sat on Adam’s bed, with his feet up on it, and wondered if even that would draw someone’s eye. He mostly didn’t care, it was that there were other things he was trying to think about. That was what was going on.
Adam was messing about on his computer, something boring. Richard wasn’t there yet. They weren’t chatting. Adam seemed absorbed in whatever the hell he was doing.
Lauren pushed open the door and came in, so that went according to plan at least. ‘So what’s going on? You guys hacking into secret government files?’
‘Ah, just some internet stuff,’ Adam said.
‘Not saving the world then?’ Lauren looked disappointed. ‘Your mum just about sent me to bed. She’s pretty sure I’m more tired than I feel. Is that even possible?’
‘Don’t ask me.’
‘Anyway, it’s stupidly early, so. You guys are going out tonight? Big Saturday?’
Scott nodded, taking advantage of Adam’s distraction. ‘Yeah, we are. Wild boys out to kick the bollocks off of common decency, that sort of thing.’
‘Ha!’ She sat next to Scott on the bed. ‘Sounds like you guys.’
Scott let his knee rest against her. ‘If it sounds like you, you can come too.’
‘Oh, can I?’ She gave him an incredulous look, and he had no idea what that meant. All his powers of figuring people out fell apart as soon as it was a girl he was interested in. Case in point.
‘Sure. What else are you going to do?’
She ignored the question and kicked Adam in the shin. ‘Don’t be an antisocial bugger, leave that and talk to me.’
She lifted an eyebrow at Scott. ‘Does he do this a lot?’
‘Often enough,’ Scott said, realising he had no idea.
Adam pushed away from the computer. ‘All right, all right. Geez.’
‘Sorry cuz, I guess I’m just a bit edgy, you know? Away from home for the first time for real.’ She scanned the room and Scott saw it through her eyes, the tidy bookshelves housing neatly-assembled fantasy sagas and school textbooks. ‘So tell me. How are things for you?’
Adam folded his arms, set his weight against his seat-back. ‘I’m okay, pretty busy with things, I have this dumb job on Sundays, and basketball and school.’
‘And the internet.’
Adam smiled. ‘Well, that’s important too.’
‘Hey, I’m not your Dad. Anyway, that’s not what I meant, I want to know the juicy stuff. How are you finding life? Enjoying seventh form? Any women in your life?’ She poked Scott’s leg. ‘You too, man.’
‘Hah!’ Adam shook his head. ‘Life is good.’
‘No, I don’t have a girlfriend yet.’
Lauren tried to catch him out with her stare. ‘Come on, spill. Any people you’re working on? That you have your eye on? There must be someone.’
Adam was reacting. There was someone! Kirsty, probably, still. Richard had given him a big old green light there, that must be...
Scott was suddenly terrified. Because if she asked this same question of him, he wasn’t sure how he’d dodge it. He might freeze up. That would mess up the whole, the whole everything. He had to speak, turn things elsewhere. ‘We’re mostly married to the basketball team at the moment, Lauren,’ he said. ‘She’s a demanding woman.’
Adam picked up the theme gratefully. ‘It is a bit crazy. And mum and dad are being weird about what I want to do next year, too. I’m not sure what I’m going to do and they’re really upset about it.’
Lauren switched tracks smoothly: ‘Your parents are just trying to do the best for you.’
‘Well, I wish they wouldn’t.’
‘Of course you do. Me too. Hell, why do you think I’m away from home? Couldn’t stand another minute!’ She laughed, jumped up to her feet. ‘You know you’re, like, the example my mum uses of how to be a good child.’
‘Oh, god,’ Adam said, balking. ‘That’s terrible!’
‘I just think its funny.’ Lauren smiled. ‘Everyone knows I’m the one leading you astray, huh?’
Adam grinned. ‘Shush! They might hear you!’
‘And that’d give the game away! No, really, our parents are conniving to improve me by having me stay with you. Can you believe it? I don’t know if I should be insulted or amused.’
Scott put his hands behind his head. ‘Of course, there are some bad influences on this side of the Cook Strait.’
‘There are?’ She looked back and forth around the room, smiling. ‘Where?’
‘Fuck you!’ Scott said back, grinning.
The door opened again, Richard this time. ‘Hey folks. Hey, Lauren, good to see you.’ Scott was impressed by how effortlessly he put himself in control of the situation. Richard was always good at that sort of thing.
Lauren gave him space and hopped up to sit on Adam’s desk. ‘Hey Richard. How’s departure preparation going?’
Richard raised an eyebrow. ‘Not bad. Still feels a bit unreal I suppose.’
‘Yeah. Got to be a bit scary, eh, walking away from all your friends and your whole life pretty much. You’ve been here since how long?’
‘The start of college. About five years.’
‘Yeah, see? That’s a big chunk. Think about it, how much of your life do you remember before you turned thirteen? Not much, right? Not that you’d care much about anyway.’
‘Yeah,’ Adam said. ‘I remember intermediate. But it doesn’t seem like me.’
‘Because it wasn’t. We’re always renewing ourselves, right?’
Scott nodded. ‘Starts and finishes.’
‘Right, well, I’ll let you guys get on with your evening then, eh? It’s getting late already, all the hot girls will be taken.’
Richard coughed. ‘We’re going somewhere with hot girls?’
‘Aren’t you? You’re all redblooded young Hutt boys, godammit, I thought your base animal instincts wouldn’t give you any choice but.’
‘I know I am.’ She scrunched up her nose.
Try one more time. ‘You should come out with us, really.’
‘Nah. I’m not up for a mission tonight, eh. Going to chill out here I think. You guys have fun, though. Adam can give me a full report.’
‘Your loss.’ On to backup plan, then. ‘Hey, you guys are still free tomorrow, yeah? Sweet as.’
Lauren was intrigued. ‘Busy social calendar! What’s on tomorrow then?’
‘It’s Scott’s thing,’ Richard said. ‘He hasn’t told us. I don’t think he has any idea yet, actually.’
Scott waved his hands. ‘Details, details. What are you up to tomorrow? Is your day booked up or might you be free to tag along?’
‘Tag along?’ She sounded affronted. ‘I stopped tagging along when I turned thirteen. Anyway, I’m going shopping with Mrs Curtis tomorrow. Girls day out, you know? And, ahem, church, of course.’
‘So we couldn’t tempt you?’
‘Ah, with anything?’
Lauren laughed, settling by the fireplace. ‘Delightfully sinful as that sounds, I don’t really think it’s a goer. Mary’s all excited about our going out, and I can’t break her heart.’
Scott realised Richard was looking at him and rallied. ‘No worries. Your loss, of course.’
‘I’ll survive, I’m sure.’ Lauren made to go. ‘Well you guys have fun…’
The door shut behind her. Adam went back to the computer: ‘I’ll just be a minute here...’
Richard leaned over to Scott, murmuring. ‘A brave attempt.’
‘Shut up, dick.’ Scott punched him in the arm. ‘I have only just begun.’
Scott checked the mailbox as Richard’s headlights disappeared down the street. There was nothing inside but glossy promos from the supermarket chains. He carried them up the short concrete path and pushed open the front door. The weak boards in the hallway floor groaned beneath his feet. Through the door to the lounge he could hear the television. The sound was muffled but he recognised the pattern of crowd noise and the synthesised music as a crappy gameshow.
He dumped his bag at the foot of the stairs and went down the hall to the kitchen. The cramped orange room was lit by a bare bulb that showed up the earthquake cracks in the walls. It smelt of sausages. He found a clean plastic cup in a cupboard and filled it with water, gulping it down and watching an attentive fly land by the pile of dishes next to the sink. Scott had another drink then threw his cup on the pile, sending the fly on another survey of the room.
At the foot of the stairs he listened to the rhythm of the applause and shouting, remembering being younger, sitting with his sister in the audience of a similar show and watching scruffy men wave signs. He let the memory sink back down and pushed open the door. The television flickered in the darkness, and Scott’s father was pale in its light.
‘There’s sausages in the fridge.’
Scott pulled the door shut. He scooped up his bag and climbed the stairs. The edges of each step were threadbare and he remembered sailing down them on a flattened cardboard box over and over until his father took it away from him. The box had gone into the shed, and they’d had a barbecue that weekend, and Scott hadn’t eaten any because he knew what had helped start the fire. Sandra had laughed and dripped steak sauce on her chin but he’d just sat by the window until it got dark, only the ache in his belly for company.
His room was small and the movie posters all around the room made it seem smaller. He pulled the threadbare curtains on the streetlight and sat on his bed. The light forced its way in anyway. He sat with his back to it, looking into his shadow, and was still.