On Thursday I’m alone again, and the weather’s cleared up so I decide to do something productive for once. Several hours after this, I manage to stop lazing around reading and actually get out the bank forms and begin to fill them in. Unfortunately the first question is ‘What is your IRD number’ and as I’m still waiting for them to send me one of those, that means no bank account for me. Damn. However, I move on to the second item on my list, which is Firewood. I spent ages earlier in the week, in the gaps between the rain, dragging in piles and piles of wood, sturdy tea-tree and crumbly kindling, all wet and dripping all over me, and piled it up under the table on the deck, but it’s still pretty wet and much too big to actually burn. The sun’s pretty warm today so I decide to saw it up and try to dry it out a bit. Lighting fires takes so fucking long, especially as I can usually only be arsed to do it when I’m drunk.
I put on my best ‘practical’ clothes (Jeans and my white singlet) grab the least-broken saw, slam on Slipknot loud, and go to war with the wood. It’s probably the most exercise I’ve done in years, but I’ve always found sawing therapeutic. You get in a wonderful destructive rhythm, and feel like you can go on forever. When they’re nearly sawn through I take the branch and thwack it hard on the thick wooden table to break the last bits, and sometimes I take breaks and go and stare out across the bay, just enjoying being happy for a while. It’s on one of these breaks that Robbie gives me the fright of my life by blundering out of the bush behind me, equipped with a grin and a four-pack of woodies. Right. Sawing over, then. We pull up chairs on the deck and chat for an hour or so. Robbie tells me tales from his life (it’s long, and interesting) and talks about about star-signs and things; he’s into all that apparently. I tell him about how the virgo horoscopes always seem completely wrong for me, and he says that perhaps I should be looking at Taurus instead, because of the [insert astrological blah here.] The afternoon wears on, clouds drifting amiably across the blue, and presently uncle bru comes back and joins us. He teases me about the bushrats (he seems to find the idea that I’ve made some sort-of friends very funny) and I watch the traffic. A car comes past spewing smoke, with the loudest tractory-est engine I’ve ever heard. We laugh at that. Then someone comes running up through the bush, someone quick that I can’t see; Uncle bruce yells, crowing, that it’s ‘that weird chick you were hanging out with the other day.’ And indeed it is Jessica Rose, dwarfed in a huge hoodie and smiling joyfully. I run down to meet her, surprised and glad to see her; I thought she was leaving on the Golden Rose (a big yellow cargo ship she’s catching a lift on) yesterday.
‘I didn’t go’ she says in her misty voice. ‘Something on the boat broke, so, maybe Sunday. So...’ She holds her arms out, meaning ‘I’m here.’ We go upstairs and onto the balcony, but uncle bruce really doesn’t like JR, and soon starts grumbling uncomfortably and eventually stomps off down to the beach, and Robbie leaves at the same time. (He does like JR. A lot.) I’m left in the cool house with JR; the light’s just gone off, and we decide to hang the swing I stole last night. We sling it up under the deck outside dad’s room, disturbing in the process a big, beautiful spider, who glares at us and makes no attempt to back down, so we shift it out of her way and, giggling, attempt to improvise some knots.
‘I should know this’ she laughs. ‘I’ve been sailing for so long....but I’ve forgotten already...’
‘They’ll hold’ I say. They will. ....Maybe. We push each other on it, screaming and laughing, for a while; it’s an awful place to put the swing and we keep hitting the house, but we’re having fun anyway. After a while we decide to go down to the beach as well, walking slowly down on bare feet. I show JR the leaves you chew for toothache, and she shows me the flax seeds you can eat. They stain my hands and lips orange, but they’re weirdly addictive and I can’t stop eating them.
‘Look!’ I yell excitedly. ‘Ponies!’ And sure enough, there are two plump brown ponies just disappearing up the road behind the shop, saddles and bridles and riding-hatted rider looking strange and out of place here. JR and I decide to follow them, but we both walk so slowly that we rapidly lose them. We don’t mind though. It’s wonderful just walking in the evening light, the bay sprawled around us, exploring this little road we’ve never walked. We pick some of those big fluffy grass-heads and sprinkle the seeds around, and stroke an angry dog that leaps manically out from behind a van. We reach the end of the road –it just stops –and the ponies are nowhere in sight. I wonder if we imagined them. We turn around and walk back the other way, just talking and feeling the warm tarmac under our feet. JR, as I have stated repeatedly, is amazing. We talk about all the silly things I can’t with anyone else; how the island feels alive to me, like a sentient thing, how I frequently talk aloud to animals and even just the bush, and how I still, a little bit, believe in fairies. We look at all the different kinds of plants – there are so many, you don’t notice unless you really look – and decide what their fairies would look like, and what their personalities would be like. She makes me a crown out of grass and flowers and tells me about Tonga, and Tahiti, and some of the other places she’s been. We walk down to the sea and stand in the windy bright sunset letting the charging waves crash around our feet; the tide’s right in over the shingle and we’re trying to grab seaweed to use as poi. (We’ve decided that we’re going to start a sea-circus, using stuff from the sea and sea-based stunts.) I can’t seem to grab any seaweed, but JR doesn’t have any problem; she just wades out a bit and asks the sea, nicely, to give her some. It does. I seriously think she might be a figment of my imagination. We walk back along the shore spinning our seaweed poi and say hi to everyone at the losers lounge.
‘Henry, you look like a hippy!’ they laugh, not unkindly. (I’ve got seaweed entwined in my hair now as well.) I smile at them and say that perhaps today I am. We meet an old sailor with a hook for a hand, accompanied by some cronies, and he tells us a variety of increasingly ridiculous stories about how he lost it. (‘So my hand’s still down there! Trapped! Holding onto the gold! I had to cut it off with a piece of rusty metal! But it’ll never let go of that gold...’) We nickname him Captain Hook, obviously, and then JR and I wander vaguely back towards Hapuka, talking about the island and its inhabitants. I say how no-one here really counts as an adult, because nobody here ever grew up; they’re all as immature and irresponsible as teenagers, even the oldest of them.
‘No-one here’s a grownup’ I say. ‘People come here to escape having to grow up.’
‘Yes’ she says, understanding. ‘It’s neverland.’
I’ve always thought of the Barrier as my own personal Neverland, but I’ve never met anyone else who got it. I tell her that.
‘That was captain hook’ she says mildly ‘and we’ve met the lost boys....’
She means the Bushrats. I object to this, although I see what she means, because they aren’t my lost boys, and they will always be the only ones I need. I find myself telling her about the Lostboys, and all sorts of other things; she tells me little snippets from her life, not enough to make any picture (I still can’t work out where she’s from, although I’m beginning to suspect America) but enough to fascinate. We end up on the balcony, lying flat on our backs with our heads dangling off, watching the dusky sky turn past us, upside down, and the mountains darken. She tells me more stories, ones from Alaska and Brazil, Mexico and the rainforests. Time she’s lived with people by hot springs above the snowline, so you jump straight out into the blizzard and then back into the boiling pools, or communities of people who live in trees for years to stop them being cut down, with bridges and walkways strewn between the huge trunks, high in the canopy, or the global gatherings in the rainy season in the forests where no-one wears clothes, or the storm she sailed through in the pacific with a man named James, where the waves crashed straight over their tiny yacht and he forced her to go below while he battled the elements alone. (‘Was he pretty?’ I ask mischievously. ‘He was very pretty’ she sighs sadly ‘but I don’t have sex, so....that was awkward.’) She doesn’t take any drugs, because she says she doesn’t need to; she can go on trips with people, see what they’re seeing, without needing them. I’d be sceptical about this, but Rach and I used to be able to do something similar back in the day, so I know it’s possible. I wish I could remember everything we talked about that day, but I can’t; all I know is that it was truly magical, and I could have lain like that forever if it wasn’t for the nagging ache in the back of my neck.
Eventually we managed to get up and decide to go to the Currach for jam night. (It’s Thursday again! How?) I go into my room and get changed, feeling very vain and shallow compared to JR’s simplistic attitude to getting ready. She’s always ready. She comes in and helps me with zips and hair and picking things (JD top and skirt) and sprinkles me with some of her lavender oil to make my hands smell nice, and then we set off, slowly and taking our time, walking over Millers in the dusk and sunset. It’s the easiest it’s ever been. When we get to the kid’s playground on the other side we climb on it and slide down the tiny slide, laughing, and then swing idly on the little swings for a while, in no hurry. By the time we’ve wandered up to the end of Gooseberry, the dusk is darkening around us and the last traces of sunset are fading into pink and purple on the horizon. When JR sees the path up to the little pohout-strewn headlands between Gooseberry and Pah beach, she sighs in delight and runs up towards it; I follow and overtake her, feet almost as steady as they used to be as I run up the vertical slope. I used to love these rocks as a kid, the soft grass and grey rock and twisted roots and sea wind. I leave JR behind a bit, running blissfully towards the sea; when I reach the cliff I jump on a rock above the ferns and let the hurrying wind buffet me, rushing in from the purple-hazed, white-capped sea. JR catches up.
‘My kingdom!’ I yell joyfully into the wind, turning round. ‘Look at it! Fuck.’
‘It’s beautiful’ she breathes, and we sink backwards onto the waiting ferns, springy and welcoming. It’s not windy down here. It’s ultimately comfortable. All I can see above me is the ferns and the sky and the leaning trees; JR is somewhere to the left of me and I can hear the sea, just where it should be. We lie there for a minute? An hour? I don’t know.
‘I can’t move’ I say drowsily. ‘I’m turning into the rock. I’ll never move.’
‘The ferns will grow over us’ says JR dreamily ‘and we’ll sink into the rock and stay here, just lying here, for years and years, and no-one will know.....and time will pass and the sea will rise and hundreds, thousands of years later we’ll wake up. The sea will be right up to here, and the trees will be much bigger, and all the houses will be gone and the mermaids will have come back. And we’ll hear them singing to us through our dreams, and we’ll wake and go down to join them.’
The moon is big and full, perhaps one day off full? This confuses me completely; when I sat with TT and stared at it and watched the shooting stars and laughed at his silly glasses I’m sure it was a half-moon; how long ago was that? How long have I been here? It can’t have been more than a week ago, but perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it was years and years ago. How old am I? Am I still seven? Was everything since I lay here last just a mournful daydream, the dark imaginings of my childish mind? Am I an old woman, an old woman dreaming of her youth? I feel what grip on reality I had slipping gently away, dissolving into the night air. Perhaps the moon is different here. Perhaps I’ve been right all along, and this really is a magical kingdom where normal rules don’t apply. I don’t know. I’m caught.
Later, by some unspoken consent, we pull ourselves slowly from the ground and climb back down, through the dark this time, and wander towards the rosy glow of the pub. Music’s drifting out over the bay, and the currach sign with its valiant little boat and hooded figures is the only bright light in the whispering darkness. No-one’s singing when we get there; the mic is open and the pub is filled with locals and a fishing party from Auckland, drunk Maoris mainly. Mike’s there, also entirely wasted. He isn’t violent or lechy or anything like that, in fact he’s fine; the only problem is he’s no longer capable of speaking English, or any language, so I spend long stretches of time having conversations with him in which I can’t decipher any of the sounds he’s making. That’s somewhat tiresome, but nothing can dampen my contentment this evening. I wander around somewhat awkwardly, not knowing who to talk to; Mike keeps stumbling around after me (he’s got no-one else to talk to either) and JR disappears periodically, leaving me a bit lost. Blue’s outside, as well as Igor, Dana and a bunch of his mates, Renee, her brother Josh, Linda, a small kid, and generally the usual suspects. Presently JR reappears, smiling, and tells me to come and play the bongos with her. Typical. Only JR could find bongos in an Irish pub. We bang happily away at them for a while, annoying the people eating dinner, and then go back outside and try to persuade Blue to get on the mic with his guitaring. He won’t, so JR persuades him to borrow the guitar and take it outside, where he plays it, reasonably badly, and JR sings and plays along on her amazing little instrument. It’s kind of a hollowed-out round thing with twangy flattened nails across it, and it makes a tiny, melodic song like a music box, made for lullabies, as she plucks it with tiny thumbs. Leon and I have been convinced since Saturday that we recognise JR from somewhere; despite her outer strangeness she just seems deeply familiar to us in some way, and we’ve been trying to work out who she reminds us of. Watching her play now, it’s something to do with her hands. I’m sure I know those thumbs.
After a while Shane, the usual owner of the guitar, comes and stares at Blue; he laughs and relinquishes it, and Shane takes his seat and plays, in his usual fashion. JR and I sit on the floor outside, forcing people to step over us, and decide what mythical creatures everyone is. Shane’s a slant-eyed bush pixie, Igor, of course, is a giant and Blue, we agree with much giggling, is a cross between an elf and a goblin. (How that came about we don’t want to know.) There were more, but I can’t remember now.
‘What am I?’ I ask curiously. ‘I’ve always wanted to be a centaur....’
‘No’ she says, smiling and touching my weird greenish hair ‘you are a mermaid.’
She dances, out on the slippery floor when no-one else will, and soon other people join in, baffled and delighted by her. (‘You remind me of girlfriends I used to have in the seventies’ says Igor, smiling down at her with amusment.) John’s let her get the bongos out and put them next to the speakers, so we play them, badly, along with Shane’s guitar. Everyone is smiling. I zigzag between the bongos and my position on a stool by the wall, where I can watch everything without drawing too much attention to myself. I tell Mike firmly to go home, because he’s too drunk, but he doesn’t seem to be able to do anything except wander vaguely around bumping into things. He does try to stick up for me when the drunkest of the fishing party, a tiny moustached stumbler, makes a grab at me, but actually he only makes the situation worse and we only just manage to prevent a fight. It’s all good. TT and Davey have appeared outside, and yell at me to come out; I swing round the door-jamb to talk to them. TT’s about to say something flattering about my appearance and for some reason this really annoys me, so I ignore him and talk to Davey. He’s cut up the bull already, since getting off work at six. Four hours. That is so fast. I heard someone earlier saying he has a technique no-one else can pull off, something about the direction he cuts down the bone.
‘Davey’ I say admiringly ‘you are a machine.’ TT starts coughing all over the place, painful whole-body hacks. I’ve got a bit of a cough myself at the moment.
‘Got a bit of a cough there Toby?’
‘Yes’ he says pathetically. ‘I’m dying.’
‘Don’t die’ I say unsympathetically. ‘Who’s going to, er, drive shit around if you die?’ I go back to talking to Davey. I’m not going to drink tonight. Partly to establish that I don’t have to, and partly because I want to prove to myself that TT, without beer goggles, is really very uninteresting. JR and I dance on the floor again, dragging all sorts of random people in with us, spinning each other round and ducking under each other’s arms, slipping on the beery sandalwood floor. I should never be allowed to dance, but never mind. Davey disappears after a while and TT comes in and joins in, laughing; we’re somehow managing to twirl about six people under an arm, ending up in a row with our elbows all facing the wrong way. I am enjoying tonight. It’s JR’s night. Without her, no-one would be dancing in here, but somehow she’s turned a pub into a party. Genius. Shane plays the Proclaimers, like he always does, and I manage to get everyone singing along with me, not caring if I look like a twat. (I can’t believe I’m sober.) As soon as he finishes and tries to play something else, everyone’s yelling ‘PLAY THAT ONE AGAIN!’ so after a while he does. Poor Shane. I nickname him the Barrier Jukebox.
JR’s outside talking to TT, and I talk to one of the fishing party, a tall islander with a smooth round face and short straggly dreds. He’s nice, and apologises for the wasted one, who is apparently his boss. He’s really quite drunk too though – you can’t tell, he’s completely polite and his speech is perfect, until you notice he’s said the same thing three times in a row. But he says I’m pretty, in a kind non-lechy way, so obviously I like him. When I drift back outside, JR and TT greet me, smiling, and a now-tipsy TT tries to tell me about his snot, which is ‘bouncy’, apparently. I do actually get what he means, mine’s the same; it lurks in the back of your throat, jumping up and down and never actually appearing, no matter how hard you cough. He’s funny, running around in his big padded check shirt and boots, smiling at everyone. He's on the boat tomorrow as well. We stay as the night torrents happily on, laughing and not giving a damn, until at about one JR decides she’s going to set off for her tree, and I decide to go with her. We wave to everyone and skip out of the door into the warm night, JR hugging TT joyfully. He gives me his best can-I-has-a-hug puppydog eyes but I ignore them and wave cheerfully at him as I stride off up the path and round the corner, JR in tow. I can’t believe she’s actually going to sleep in a tree. I want to go home and kick things and then sleep, but she wants me to come and sleep in her tree and actually, how can you refuse an offer like that? It’s all the way round near Kyle’s work in Puriri bay, but we’re in no hurry and the moon is bright, so we step lightly off round the corner and towards the bridge.
‘I like Tobey’ says JR suddenly. ‘He is so wise. He sees so much.’
This is completely not the image I had of him, so that confuses me. I wonder what they were talking about.
‘I like his shirt’ she continues. ‘You know...when you see someone wearing a shirt like that...that they will give good hugs.’
‘Mmph.’ I like those big padded check shirts too. Used to wear them, back in the day.
‘What creature do you think Toby is?’
‘Oh, I don’t know’ I snap angrily. I’m furious with TT for being vaguely appealing even with clothes on, even when I’m sober, and I stamp along in aggrieved silence fantasising about killing him in horrible ways. (Arms won’t be so nice if I pull them off and shove them through a mincer, will they? Try being funny when I run your face over with a lawnmower! Axe to the midriff, yank out intestines, hack up chest in a few blows, shatter the ribcage from the back and drag the spine out broken and backwards.... Legs.....eh, hack ‘em up and use ‘em as bait. Sorted.) After a while I calm down a bit and realise I’m being stupid; TT’s got better things to do and prettier girls to talk to, and if I want to deprive myself of hugs I’m the only one who's losing out. I decide it’s me who needs to go through the mincer. I have no idea what creature he is, which means I’m overthinking it, which is never good. It should be obvious, but I’m looking too hard.
The road is streaming away beneath us surprisingly quickly; I notice with astonishment that we’re already at Bob & Tipi’s, and onto the chunky metal road. JR and I are both barefoot and the metal roads aren’t kind, so we’re picking our way along the smoothest bits of road in the warm moonlight, listening to the little waves picking at the shore and letting the night breeze curl past us. It’s not difficult, we’re just chatting lazily and not hurrying, and surprisingly soon we’re coming past the shadowy hull of the Lady Isla and on towards JR’s tree. This kind of walking is the kind I could get used to. It’s amazing how far you get when you’re not even paying attention.
‘A dragon’ I say, after giving it some thought. ‘I reckon Toby’s a dragon, a talking one. The slippery kind who trick you.’ JR doesn’t quite see what I mean, but I knew he was reminding me of something; something to do with smoke curling out of narrow nostrils and his knowing half-smile. I get angry with him again. If he was a dragon I could stab him, or whatever it is one does to dragons.
We reach the tree and I instantly understand better how we’re supposed to sleep in it. The massive trunk stands staunch up to about fifteen foot and then splits, curving out in every direction, and in the middle is a flat, earthy basin full of green palms and fronds. It’s like the palm of a massive hand. There’s more than enough room for us both. We scale the trunk on the easier side, using vines and footholds in the ancient trunk to heave ourselves up, and sit happily down like birds in a massive nest. JR’s grabbed some stuff she’d hidden under a boat – a couple of tarps, which we pull over ourselves and wriggle into position on the warm earthy floor. I’m on the right and JR’s on the left, above me; there are only a couple of bushes between me and the ground below me, but somehow I know they’ll hold. All good. JR snuggles up against me – she’s so warm – and after talking idly for a while, we decide to go to sleep.
For me, though, sleep is not to be. I wish I had managed to bludge a beer or two now; things are sticking into me from all angles, something’s nibbling on me somewhere, and the fucking wind is getting under my tarp and finding every exposed piece of skin and making me cold. I try to shift round to make myself more comfortable a couple of times, but I always end up waking JR, so eventually I just accept that I won’t be getting any sleep tonight, and just lie there watching the sky gradually lighten and listen to the birds start up their morning racket, yelling defiantly at each other from branches all the way up the mountains. I think I do drift off a couple of times, but never for long. It’s ok. I can go without sleep for now. This is worth it. I'm in a tree. Yeah. Awesome.