David Hill’s novels for young adults are published in 12 countries. His YA novel, Enemy Camp, about the WW2 shooting of Japanese POWs at Featherston, and picture book on Edmund Hillary, First To The Top, were shortlisted for 2016 Children’s Book Awards.
“This story was written while I was Writer in Residence at Massey University, taking in new sights and speculating about what various unknown people might be thinking and / or doing.”
“Hello, etc, and fancy meeting you, etc,” the woman carols, as they come face to lipstick in the doorway on Saturday morning.
He recognises her. She’s a local culture weka. She smiled on the fringes of his exhibition opening at the Adobe, the week he arrived down here. She hailed him as he was peering at, and trying to find fault with, his predecessor’s lithographs in the library lobby a fortnight or so later.
“I’m on my way to a water-colour workshop,” she tells him now. Yes, he thinks; you would be. He nods, pleasantly, not quite condescendingly. He’s moving on when she asks, “And how do you fill your days?”
He’s on the footpath outside before the words really slot home. Cheeky bitch, he thinks. Suggesting that he – worse, suggesting it pertinently.
Because in the two months since he took up the Residency, he does find himself seeking things to fill days. Weekend days, anyway. He’s got his studio in the Arts Centre, but he can’t spend all his time there. That would seem obsessive, tragic even. He’s made new acquaintances, of course; he’s adept at that. He’s been asked to coffees, a couple of mid-week dinners, a Friday pub session or two. But the weekends sag before him.
Except on this Saturday. Today he’s going to coffee with another, more promising woman. Promising? Well, later on he hopes to be in bed with her.
She’s older than the culture weka; mid-40s probably. He likes women that age; feels predatory with younger ones. He likes the cushiony or bony bodies of the fifth decade; the way those bodies don’t demand too much and are pleased with what happens. The way they belong to textured, interesting minds. If nothing else comes of this morning’s encounter, he’ll enjoy talking to Madeleine. It’s a good name: elegant, with a hint of naughtiness.
Though he isn’t sure ‘elegant’ is the word for Madeleine. She’s short. She’s … substantial? ample? bulky? It depends on the way she sits, really. He doesn’t mind. After all, he doesn’t demand too much, either.
He hopes, he’s starting to feel, that this morning things may move towards another level of relationship. It’s the second time they’ve arranged coffee; the fourth or fifth time they’ve met. She was at the Adobe opening, also. Shook hands with him, had a good look at him, gave the impression that she wouldn’t mind having another look. (You arrogant prick, he told himself at the time.) She’s a part-time art teacher at one of the town’s half-dozen high schools, does her own acrylics, but doesn’t push the fact. She listens to him, laughs in the right places, and he doesn’t think he’s just being that said prick when he feels there’s more and more appraisal, a growing … invitation in her looks, each time they meet.
Plus at the other coffee meet, six days back, there was that business with her hands. They’re plump hands, like the rest of her. They wear rings, but not on what he thinks of as the prohibitive finger. As the cliché intones, he wouldn’t mind feeling them on relevant parts of him.
They nearly were, at the previous coffee. On his own fingers, anyway. As she talked about the art scene and its challenges in a provincial town, her hands gesticulated, splayed across the table, pushed forward towards his. After ten minutes, he began wondering if there was some signal being given here, so he allowed his own palms to lie ambivalently on the wood veneer between them. Sure enough, hers slipped forward to just a few centimetres from his, stayed there, lifted as she laughed at something he said, returned to lie – he’s sure – even closer to his. He held their handshake for an extra beat when they said goodbye and he feels confident she registered.
So there’s a satisfied smile on his face as he heads towards the traffic lights. He notices it, and pulls his mouth back into a more modest shape. The lean, ever-so-slightly melancholic-sensitive-fractionally-dangerous artist is the look he prefers to display.
A bundle sags against the front of the Two Dollar Shop, on the chewing-gum-studded footpath. A man. Layers of clothes, legs drawn up, a piece of cardboard with the scrawl, HOMELESS.
His fingers – they’re indeed a motif this morning – check the coins in his pocket. At the same moment, his feet are moving faster. He tries to decide. The man is staring in the other direction. Matted hair, grimy neck; the usual.
He’s level when the beggar sees him. A stained palm stretches out. “Any spare change, buddy? Got any change?” His own hands and body remain at odds; he half-pulls out a couple of dollars, but he’s already past, striding on. Half a second, and the sprawled shape is behind him.
He can still stop, go back. He should; it’s a day to be generous to others, since he feels more and more that someone intends to be generous to him. But the Cross Now sign chirps, and he keeps moving. Bugger, he thinks. Badly timed. Badly … handled.
Madeleine is there, at a corner table. Good – an intimate setting to ease things forward. She smiles. He leans across, thinks of kissing her on the cheek, takes her hand instead and presses it, lets his fingers move across her palm. She squeezes back; no doubt about it.
If the beggar’s still there on the way back, he’ll give the guy a few bucks. He decides so as he sits. Good fortune should be shared around, all right.
They talk easily, as before. His work, her classes, the endless issue of exhibition space. Right from the start, he knows she has something else on her mind. Excellent: events are moving perfectly.
His eyes move over her. He hopes she notices. Broad hips, matronly breasts. Yes, he’ll enjoy this body. He’ll be good to it. Her hands move on the table. He makes his available once more, edges them a meticulously measured couple of millimetres towards hers.
She taps her fingers as she describes her Head of Department’s unresponsiveness. Turns her palms upwards as she laments the lack of giving, of generosity in society as a whole (her phrase). Well-fleshed palms: he can most definitely feel them on him.
She’s going on about herself rather a lot this morning. It could get boring. But she’s nervous, of course. She’s a respectable woman; doesn’t want to seem forward or easy. He’ll help her, in a few minutes.
In just a couple of minutes, actually. They’ve finished their coffee; they need to take the next step. Madeleine is talking about the Art in Public Spaces Campaign, and the inevitable Letters to the Editor about how we need ratepayers’ money spent on decent footpaths, not some arty-farty nonsense. Yeah, he thinks. Yeah, been there.
She spreads her hands to emphasise, skin corrugating on the backs of them. She lowers them onto … no, onto the table again. But virtually touching his. No doubt about it.
That silly bloody culture weka woman, he thinks again. How do you fill your days? Hell, he’ll show her. Actually, he wouldn’t mind showing her in other ways, as well. She’s not too young, really. He’s felt hints of – he yanks himself back to now and Madeleine.
Time to ease the conversation in a more meaningful direction. Does her work satisfy her? he’ll ask. Always a potent word, that ‘satisfy’. Are there other things that she –
She interrupts before he’s a couple of sentences in. He’s a bit startled. “Oh yes, there are!” she exclaims. Why, on the way here, just half an hour ago, she’d passed this poor man begging on the footpath. Homeless. It’s awful to think of someone having to exist like that. If only there was more help for people in that sort of plight! (‘plight’ is her word, also.)
This isn’t really what he’d expected, but she’s nervous after all. He segues into Compassionate Male. “Yeah, I saw the guy. Sad case, all right. I’d like to …”
This is his opening, he recognises. Now he can reach forward, perfectly naturally, take her hands with warmth and sympathy and an unmistakeable extra immediacy. The rest will follow. It’s almost too easy.
Then her hands move – onto his, seizing and holding them. His own jerk slightly. Everything is happening more … more full-frontally than he’d dared hope for. He starts to turn his own hands over, so they’re palm against palm, moving the signals into the first, unambiguous caresses.
He can’t. Hers are holding his too firmly. Not holdng. Clutching. Clamping. It’s a second till the realisation turns verbal in his head. This isn’t – he thinks again.
She barges in once more. “That sad, sad creature. I’ve been trying to make my mind up for a long time. Now I know – I’m going to start an appeal to provide shelter for that poor man, and the others like him. And you’re the perfect person to help me!”
He stares – No, to his annoyance, he gapes. She grips his hands still harder. Her eyes are protuberant; her nose is fat, porcine almost. Why the hell hasn’t he registered this before?
“Will you do the posters for me?” Her voice rises; a few heads turn at tables nearby. The insult of that posters starts to pulse in his mind. He tries to slip his hands from her thick grasp, but she grips him fast. Her words charge on.
“I felt almost as soon as we met that you would be perfect for a cause like this. We can do something so good together. We can – we can fill our days with it.”
First published takahe 87