A/N:Not certain that this is ready, but I don't think I will edit it much further.
Katie, his wife was driving. He had driven the entire trip, and she had said she would help with the driving, so she was. There was a brittleness about the way she sat holding the wheel with both hands and her arms stiff.
He had barely had a chance to read his book. It was open, face down on his lap. It would probably annoy her if he read, he thought, or he would get carsick. He fixed his gaze out the window, instead.
When she drove, the minutes changed slower on the digital clock in the dash. He noticed that she was careful and anxiously watched the steady needle of the speedometer, but there was something else to it. It may have been the monotony of the white lines passing either side of the car. Long drives were a little like sleeping, he thought.
“I just wish I had stayed up a little later,” she said.
“You know it kind of died down a little after you left. It’s no big deal.”
“Well we’ve come all this way, we probably won’t see Graham and Tui for a while.”
He shrugged. “They’ll come over soon enough, I’m sure.”
She nodded. It was like this when they both had a hangover. Her a little depressed, though more lethargic than depressed. Sometimes she fell into an inertia, watching movies on the couch. He became apathetic, doing the little he could to make it easier, but hoping the little was enough. Even after a fight the night before, the morning was the same, both too tired to still be mad. They loved each other more, it seemed, when they were hungover.
“I can drive, whenever you are ready to switch, I’ll take over” he said.
“It’s fine, I can drive a while. I just need to take it slow. I don’t remember it being this windy when we came down.” Her brows moved closer together above her nose, as though there was someone to blame for the lay of the land.
“That’s because we came in the other way. This is the way Dad told us not to come but it’s faster.”
She didn’t say anything, though she opened her mouth to speak. Then after a moment she did.
“Why did we need to leave so early?”
“Well we need to get to Tauranga for dinner, it’s the only night we will have time to see my sister.”
“Okay,” she said.
The gorge was a wound hacked into the land. The roads she had seen in Australia, even in the country, were incisions. Clean and austere lines. This road was crude, hideous, she thought.
They descended the gorge, winding alongside a damp cliff face grated into the hill. On the other side of the road, the land fell away and from the depths sprung vernal plumes of green. Ferns furled out clutching at the road and occasionally, when the road curled along the cliff over the gully, he could look down and glimpse a slow, clear river.
“You know,” she said, “that food was really bad.”
“Yeah. It’s a Maori thing.”
“It tasted like dirt and salt.”
“Yeah,” he said, looking back out the window. He had enjoyed it. It hadn’t tasted of dirt to him, it tasted how it always had. It tasted like the end of season break up at his father’s rugby club. It tasted like his cousins twenty-first birthday.
“You know, if people are paying hundreds of dollars to come over for a wedding, you would expect them to put on a better spread.”
“Yeah, I guess. I mean most people that were there probably live in Whanganui anyway.”
“Still,” she said.
“Maybe we should have a night off drinking,” he said. That was usually how it went, let’s have a couple of weeks off or I’m not going to drink for a while, just to get back into the gym.
She rolled her eyes quite deliberately.
“When we get back I’m going to take it easy for a bit, it’s such a waste of a Sunday being hung-over.”
“Darling,” she said. “I’ve heard that before.” She turned away from the road momentarily to smile at him. “I just wished I made the most of last night, I mean I wish I knew more people.”
“You really didn’t miss out, they turned the music off and the guitar came out. Then the party started to thin out.”
“It’s just awkward when you don’t know anyone.”
“You know Tui and Kate.”
“Kate’s pregnant,” she said. “She went back to the motel before me.”
“Well, I didn’t know anyone.”
“It’s different though,” she said, gently slowing the car down to take a hairpin bend. She accelerated as they crossed the bridge at the gut of the gorge. “You were drunk and you are from here.”
“No, but New Zealand.”
He nodded. She was wrong, he thought, but he knew what she meant in a way. He saw a cow grazing amongst the grass near the stones of the river edge. It raised its head indifferently as they passed.
“Hmm, I just saw a cow.”
“Oh my God, really?” she said “What the hell is a cow doing in there?”
“I don’t know. Do you want to pull over and go back for a look?”
“Where could I pull over?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Do you think it’s lost?” she said. The gap between her eye brows narrowed but her eyes were as wide as he had seen them.
They climbed from the gorge. The native ponga ferns still reached out on one side. However on the other side, the cliff face lowered and flattened. A fence line sprouted from the fields of long grass which leaned away from the breeze. There was an endless grey sky above, wild, feral green native bush on one side and a neat comb of long grass on the other. A few horses were picking at the grass. The black road slid beneath them, taking the gorge with it. A flatbed with a wooden box strapped on the back swung out to pass. Brown and black dogs looked back at them as it roared by, swinging back into the lane.
“Jesus,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
“What the hell was that?” She was staring at the back of the flatbed, which was propped up high above the road. It diminished slowly into the distance.
“Pig dogs,” he said.
Soon after she pulled over and they swapped seats.
He drove the rest of the way to Tauranga. He took it easy around bends, letting her sleep against the window.
Before arriving at Lisa, his sister’s home, they had parked beside the beach for a moment to allow her to put her make up on. Lisa poured them wine and they sat about the dining table whilst Cam, his brother in law cooked the barbecue.
“Give him a hand,” Katie said.
“Okay,” he said.
He took his wine and grabbed another beer for Cam.
“You must hate cooking,” he said.
“Well, you have to cook at work then at home.”
“Yeah. I don’t mind, it’s different.” He put the empty bottle of beer on the hip of the barbecue and opened the other one. “Doe’s Katie mind if I cook her veggie skewers on the grill?”
“No, she will be fine. Just make sure she doesn’t see them touch any meat.”
They ate dinner and drank more wine. Cam wanted to go to bed, he went around checking that the girls were sleeping and he switched off lights. He stopped opening new beers and stopped pouring more wine. He began to drink water. He stacked the dishwasher then sat down again. They talked about the weather and news. Eventually, Lisa tipped back the last of her wine and said “Well, we’ve got work tomorrow.”
“Okay,” he said, rising from the table.
“Bed time,” Katie said.
“I’ve made the bed up in the spare room.”
When they were in bed, as she was dozing off, he leaned over and kissed her.
“Why didn’t you tell me your sister had such an amazing house?”
“It’s alright, I guess.”
“I never knew” she said, yawning and talking at the same time in a way that her words became high pitched and elongated. “It doesn’t feel like a holiday yet, all we have done is drive.”
“I can’t wait to get to the beach and just relax.”
“Me either,” he said.
They had complained most of the trip. But, they were as bad as each other, he thought. Everything was too expensive, petrol, coffee. At the beach, there was nothing left to complain about. They walked along the beach every morning and swam away the grogginess brought on by the wine of the prior evening. He collected muscles, fried them then slurped them from their shells and she made enough salad for dinner to fill the lunch rolls the next day. They read on the beach by day and listened to music and drank wine by night. They kissed over the bench top as he did the dishes.
Before the flew out, they dropped the rental car back, thankfully when inspected the small scratch on the door which was left when the suitcase fell against it, was over looked.
Annie, who had housesat, had left the apartment clean with a bunch of fresh flowers in a vase on the coffee table and clean sheets on the bed.
Before they left, he had wondered why they had needed a house sitter at all.
“It’s not as though we have a cat to feed.”
“I thought it would be nice for her,” she said.
“She’s been struggling a little since Greg left.”
“Oh well that’s fair,” he said. Though they both knew he thought it wasn’t.
Now she had left the place tidier than she had found it, with fresh milk and eggs in the fridge and a neat thank you scrawled on a note on her pillow.
Weeks passed, his tan faded beneath his shirt and tie. They left for work at the same time and arrived home at the same time.
A month later, they had dinner with her parents. Just the four of them in a busy restaurant in the city.
“So how was your trip?”
“It was good, you know it didn’t really feel like a holiday at first,” Katie said, taking a sip of her wine. “I mean the wedding was terrible.”
He didn’t speak, he simply nodded whilst she spoke. “Some parts of New Zealand are really feral. Not where Tim’s from, that’s okay, but I mean where the wedding was. Oh it was dire.”
Her dad laughed. “You’ve lived in the city to long, my dear.”
“No, I mean it was really bad.”
“Go to East Africa or Bolivia,” he said. He cut into his steak. “How are your folks, Tim?”
He took some time off drinking and to his surprise, she did too. Occasionally when they put music on in the evening and ate take-out on the couch, he eyed the old wooden shelves upon which, his various bottles of Gin and her bottles of vodka stood. When the urge came for a drink he quashed it with a glass of Kombucha, or a warm liquorice tea. On Sunday mornings they went to the market for veggies and talked about getting a puppy or a kitten.
“Well it’s just too small as it is and if we are still here when we have a kid, we won’t have room for a dog as well.”
“I thought maybe we would move out of the city, you know, if we ever started a family.”
“Well maybe, but I don’t want a dog yet, okay?”
He gave up the gym and began to run a trail through the botanical gardens. When he saw other runners lead by huffing, galloping dogs, who sniffed about his feet as he passed, he felt a pang of jealousy and imagined himself running home with his dog to his house.
When he began to meditate she made fun of him, but soon enough they did it together. She could be open-minded, she had said. She laughed when the timer went off on his phone after five minutes.
“It’s so weird,” she said. “I don’t know anyone else who actually meditates.”
“A lot of high level executives do it for stress relief. You would be surprised.”
She laughed again.
“You’re just so fake sometimes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you were so different at the wedding. You started acting all tough and rugged, you even changed your voice. Imagine if they saw you now.” Her laughing was getting to him, she always laughed.
“Those guys who thought denim was wedding appropriate, the ones who laughed at your socks.”
“Oh, shut up,” he said dismissively. Careful not to antagonise.
“Imagine their faces if they saw you meditating.” She threw her mouth open and laughter tore out. Genuine laughter, but it hurt him all the same.
“I didn’t change,” he said. “I was just drunk.”
“It’s okay, baby,” she said.She pulled him gently, holding her hands against his cheeks. Resting his head in her lap, she turned strands of his hair about her fingers.
“We all do it.”
He looked at the television but he did not see the pictures. He could only see the cow, grazing beside the river. It was strange, it didn’t know that it was lost.