John Carstensen

John Carstensen

John is a Danish born Kiwi and an English teacher by profession. He has worked mainly in New Zealand but has also lived and worked in China. He is a writer of short fiction and poetry and a keen fly fisher.

“Writing fiction is a process of invention, discovery and surprise, which can sometimes be crafted successfully into a story.”


The Great Outdoors

There had been a simmering tension in the house for a while and an unpleasant grumpiness. It was time for both of them to do the things that would relieve their discontent. Donna felt too isolated living out in the countryside. She was packing her bags to drive to town with their two daughters. She would stay with her parents and visit old friends.

Harry didn’t feel isolated enough. He was packing his saddle bags and his rifle to go bush, and his dogs, Black and Blue, whimpered and fidgeted excitedly. Neither Harry nor Donna knew if the other would be there when they got back. Harry and the dogs were at the end of the road and onto the bush track in under half an hour. His gloom lifted as he pushed his way on horseback along the track into the bush, despite the thickening clouds and drizzle.

The dogs picked up a scent and bolted off the track, down to a stream. Harry tethered the horse to a branch and followed the frantic barking and squealing. The dogs had bailed up a pig. It was a young boar and Blue had latched onto its ear. Harry held it down with his knee and pushed the dog away. He grabbed a hind leg of the squirming pig and drew his knife. With one deft slice he castrated the pig and rubbed iodine onto the wound. He commanded the dogs to stay and released the pig, which ran off crashing through the undergrowth. In a year or two that little guy would be a big fat gelded boar for some lucky hunter.

The drizzle thickened to steady rain and Harry was soaked through by the time he reached the hut in a small clearing in the bush, just a short stroll through the tutu and the toetoe to the river. Actually, it was at the confluence of three rivers, two of which had tracks leading out to a road and one could be traversed on horseback. The hut was a standard one room DOC trampers’ hut with basic amenities and it was Harry’s favourite place in all the world. There were two sets of built-in bunks and a kitchen sink with a tap fed by rain water collected from the roof into a tank on a wooden stand behind the hut. Next to the bench top there was a safe with a mesh window to the outside to keep food fresh and pest-free. Harry whacked the side of the water tank. About two-thirds full.

There was a fireplace and a few blackened pots and pans on the hob. It wasn’t long before there was a blazing fire going and smoke rising from the corrugated iron chimney. The one door of the hut opened onto a sheltered veranda with a stash of brush and lengths of dry manuka for the fire, which Harry would replace before he left. He tossed some dog biscuits onto the veranda and cooked his own food over the fire. With his wet clothes hanging on the line that stretched the length of the hut, he sat on the bunk in a pair of dry shorts, in the perfection of warm, dry solitude. Harry began to doze but both the dogs suddenly started barking. Must be somebody coming. Better take a look. A lone tramper standing out there at a cautious distance.

“Could you settle your dogs down so I can come into the hut?”

Well shit, it was a woman, just when he wanted a break from female company. “Be quiet!” he shouted, and the dogs instantly obeyed.

The woman stepped up onto the veranda, extended her hand and said her name was Janet. Harry hesitated for a moment, then shook her hand and said, “Harry.”

“Whew. It took longer than I thought to get here,” said Janet. “Is it just you here? I didn’t think there’d be anyone. At the DOC office they said there were no other bookings. I hope you don’t mind sharing.”

“It’s a free country,” said Harry.

“Indeed it is,” said Janet.

Then Harry said, “I don’t mind sharing if you don’t mind taking the risk.”

“And what risk would that be?”

“I could be a psychopathic killer or a rapist.”

“Well, are you?”

“No,” said Harry, “but then I could also be liar.”

“No point in asking you if you’re a liar. Still, I’ll take the risk if you will.”

“What?”

“I could get up in the middle of the night and slit your throat with my fishing knife,” said Janet.

“Maybe I should bring the dogs inside,” said Harry.

Janet held Harry’s gaze and wasn’t going to be put off by his blunt, unwelcoming manner. She dropped her pack on the floor inside and said, “This is nice and cosy.”

Harry sat on his bunk and watched as she took off her hooded parka. Ginger hair to her shoulders. Thirty something. Average height, average build, average looks, average everything. Well, not bad looking for a ginga, he supposed. “Where’s your fishing rod then?” he asked.

“In my pack.”

“You got one of those telescopic spinning rods?”

“No, spinning’s cheating. It’s a fly rod. A five piece.” She sat on the bottom bunk against the other wall, at right angles to Harry’s.

“You a local?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t live here, but not far from here. No need to ask where you’re from,” said Harry, having noted Janet’s distinct Scottish accent.

“Yes, I’m here on holiday, hiking and trout fishing.”

“On your own,” Harry observed. “Are you married?”

“No.”

“Are you a lesbian?”

“No.” Still unfazed. “What about you? Married?”

“Yeah.”

“Your wife not share your love of the great outdoors?”

“No.”

“Have you got any children?”

“Yeah, two girls. I thought there was good trout fishing in Scotland.”

“There is, in the Highlands. But all the land’s privately owned and it costs an arm and a leg for a half day licence. You have to pay the landowner. Not like here. You buy a season licence at a reasonable price and fish anywhere. And the trout are a lot bigger. You stay in huts like this for next to nothing, or nothing at all,” she added, pointedly.

“This your first time here in our little paradise?”

“Second. Last time I fished the Tongariro. Good fishing, but a bit crowded. So I thought I’d search out somewhere more remote. This river’s a well-kept secret.”

“How’d you sniff it out?”

“A friend of a friend knew about it.”

“I hope it was no one I know. Catch any fish today?”

“No, the river’s a bit high and dirty with this rain. It might be all right tomorrow, now that the rain’s stopped. Anyway I think I’ll turn in. I’m pretty tired. You’re not as friendly as most of the kiwis I’ve met, but I don’t think you’re dangerous.”

Janet stripped to the waist in front of the fire, with her back to Harry. She took off her bra and put her T shirt back on.

Harry thought he’d better be the gentleman and lay on his bunk facing the wall, but not before catching a glimpse of a creamy white breast of a very fine shape in the glow of the fire light. He snuffed out the candle, crawled into his sleeping bag and drifted off to the reassuring calls of the night hunters, the hooting and screeching of moreporks.

When he woke in the morning, Janet was coming in the door again. “I’ve just been out to have a look at the river,” she said. “It’s come down a bit and the bush stain’s gone. There might be a good morning rise after that fresh. I’ll see if I can catch us some breakfast.”

Harry watched as she assembled her rod and attached the light nylon leader to the floating line and then the fly. It was all pretty quick.

“You tie your own flies?” Harry asked.

“Yes, a few different nymphs and dry flies. You don’t need hundreds of different flies.” She went out with a small day pack, wearing shorts and a good pair of tramping/fishing boots and a good pair of legs, of smooth, well-toned, white flesh.

Harry got dressed and followed quietly at a distance. Janet veered off the track downstream as she approached the river and upstream to the bank, staying close to covering scrub. The water was clear enough to spot fish and to be spotted by them. She was stalking her prey, looking for the shadowy torpedo shape of a trout. He could see she was going to work her way up a long riffly run below a small waterfall. She stripped off enough line with a few false casts to reach midstream, but got the fly caught in the bushes behind her. Harry chuckled to himself as she retrieved the line from the bush. She returned to the same spot and adjusted the angle of her back cast and flicked the line onto the water into the foam line. As she moved upstream there was more clearance and less cover. Keeping herself in the shade back from the bank, she stripped off close to 20 metres of line, hauling it into a smooth arc behind her, pausing while it loaded and thrusting it forward into an opposite, unfurling arc to land the fly delicately on the water upstream.

She continued upstream, repeating the same action, each time achieving a dead drift with the current and mending the line with an occasional flick of the wrist to keep the current from dragging it. She was nearly up to the head of the run where the water was quite clear and she spotted a large fish just holding its place in the current, feeding on insects washed down from the faster water ahead. She cast at an angle from the bank to place the leader ahead of the fish, with the more visible floating line behind its field of vision and let the current take the fly to the fish. Harry could just see the tuft of white hackles that kept the fly afloat and then saw it disappear into the gaping white mouth of a fish head just breaking the surface. Janet stood motionless, waiting a good few seconds till the fish turned back down into the river, then jerked the rod up and the line went tight. The reel screamed as the line slashed through the water downstream. She controlled the tension on the line with her hand on the reel and wound it in quickly when it went slack. A good size rainbow trout broke the water, leaping and thrashing into the air, its pale underside flashing silver in the sunlight. It dived and darted and she held the rod high and bent, so it was fighting against its springy tension. She played the fish for a few minutes till she could reel it safely into the shallows. There it lay on a pebbly shelf, exhausted and gasping, but still not landed. It was a well-conditioned jack, a mature male, with its elongated jaw. The dead weight of the fish would probably have snapped the light nylon so she waited till it started flapping to drag it ashore. When it was safely on the bank, she struck it on the head with a rock, slit it behind the gills, bled it and gutted it.

Harry went back to the hut and got the fire going again. When Janet returned he said, “How’d you get on?”

“Good. Got a nice rainbow trout.”

So breakfast was fresh trout, pan-fried over the fire, and watercress, which grew abundantly in nearby side streams. Janet said she would spend the day fishing her way upstream and walk back to the hut.

“We don’t need any more fish,” said Harry. “This one’s more than enough and it won’t keep.”

“I’ll just catch and release,” said Janet. “That’s what I usually do, anyway. I enjoy the challenge and the experience and the environment.”

“I’ll just hang around here for the day,” said Harry, “and enjoy some peace and quiet. Late in the day, maybe I’ll go for a hunt. Dusk is a good time for deer. We could do with some meat and so could the dogs.”

Harry found a possie high on the river bank overlooking a clearing on the opposite side, where he’d seen some deer sign. There was a chill in the air and he hunkered down with the dogs in the scrub and waited as the sun went down. Right on dusk, a doe stepped cautiously out of the bush to drink from the river. Harry watched her through the rifle scope. She raised her head and sniffed the air. It was an easy shot, but he hesitated, continued watching. Black whined and the doe looked up, alarmed, ready to bolt. Harry put a shot through the top of her neck and she dropped on the spot.

Back at the hut, Janet had a fire going. When Harry came in she said, “I heard a shot. Did you kill something?”

“Yeah, a deer.”

“Where is it?”

“I left it there. It was too dark. I’ll go back and butcher it in the morning. How’d you get on?”

“Good. I caught a few fish.”

They both ate food from their own stores. Janet tried to make conversation. Comments about the beauty of the river and the bush just drew grunts from Harry.

“What do you for a living, Harry?” she asked.

“I’m a shepherd.”

“Nice.”

“It’s all right if you like working with animals and working outdoors.”

“Which you do, obviously.”

“What about you? What do you do back in Scotland?”

“I’m a pharmacist, in Edinburgh. Have you ever been out of New Zealand? Done much travelling?”

“Went to Aussie once.”

Harry didn’t care much for talking about himself and wasn’t much interested in travel, so Janet’s store of travel experiences would not hold much interest. She went out and sat on the veranda for a while to do some star gazing and talk to the dogs. It was a quiet night and an early night. Harry paid a visit to the long drop and had a wash at the outside tap in front of the hut. When he came back into the hut, Janet was curled up in her sleeping bag. In the morning, she went with Harry to see the deer and helped him carry it back to the hut after he’d gutted it and dismembered it with an axe and a knife. Janet went back out on the river and Harry cut up some of the meat and gave the dogs a good feed. He bagged quarters and chunks in mutton cloth and hung them from a kahikatea at the back of the hut. After he’d finished dealing with the meat he cut and stacked a store of firewood and topped up the water bucket. Chores done, he sat on the veranda and rested.

The horse was happily grazing the long grass around the hut and the dogs were lying contentedly in the sun when suddenly Black jumped up and started barking and then Blue. Harry looked around. It couldn’t be Janet. They’d stopped barking at her. It was Jono Johnson coming along the track with a pack and a rifle on his back. Harry knew him from rugby. JJ they called him. He was a pisshead and a bit of a yobbo. Harry had never liked him.

JJ came striding up the track with an idiotic grin and said, “Hey, Harry, I was on my way up to the Tawa Hut and I met your lady friend on the track, you sly old bugger, shacked up here with that Scottish chick. Wait till I tell your missus. Ha ha ha.” He took off his pack and kept the rifle sling on his shoulder. “By the way, I seen your missus out having a night on the town. Looked like she was having a good time.”

“She’s not my lady friend, JJ and we’re not shacked up. She just turned up and actually she’s a pain in the ass.”

“Yeah, that’s your story. A babe lost in the woods, eh. Well, I wouldn’t pass up the chance. How about I go join her in the hut and charm her pants off. She seems like a bit of a princess. What’s she doing here, anyway? Fishing, she reckons.”

“Yeah, she’s fishing and she fishes like a bloody champion. She’s smart and she’s a decent person, unlike you on both counts, you bozo, and if you lay a hand on her, I’ll set my fucking dogs onto you. So why don’t you just piss off up to the Tawa now.”

Black started growling and JJ picked up his pack. “All right, be an asshole,” he said and strode off. Before he disappeared from sight he shouted back, “Have her to yourself then, you bullshit artist.”

Harry got the fire going in the hut and when Janet returned he set about preparing dinner: filets of steak he’d cut from the back-strap of the deer carcass and a handful of field mushrooms he’d picked up.

“Oh, my God! This is so good,” said Janet over dinner, “so tender, so succulent and gamey. As good as you’d get in any restaurant anywhere.”

They talked about food while they ate, especially about New Zealand delicacies like venison, roast lamb, wild pork, sea food and what you could find to eat in the bush if you had to.

After dinner Harry announced, “I’m going to move out tomorrow.”

“I was thinking of moving on myself,” said Janet, “so you might want to change your mind and stay. Look, Harry, I was disappointed that I didn’t have the hut to myself, too, but at least I booked it.”

“No, no, it’s not that. I just want to take the meat out on the horse and put it in the freezer at home and check on some animals. I might even come back the day after.”

Janet moved to sit next to Harry on his bunk and said, “Thank you for defending my honour today, Harry. I came back up the river and I was just down from the hut when you were talking to JJ.”

“He’s such a jackass,” said Harry.

“Anyway, I really appreciate it,” she said, placing her hand on his arm.

Harry was not comfortable with being appreciated or with any show of emotion. He preferred it when the barriers were up. Barriers came crashing down, however, as Janet moved her hand to his shoulder and kissed him. What was a man to do? Kiss her back, of course, and lie back on the bunk. The bunk was a bit confining for amorous embraces so he threw the mattress onto the floor and there, in front of the fire they made love. The tension that had been lurking in the hut seeped out into the night air. The dogs shuffled on the veranda and the little night owl cried out, more pork, more pork.

The fire gradually died to a few embers in the grate and as the chill of the night set in Harry and Janet both went to their bunks and crawled into their sleeping bags. Morning was quiet and calm outside the hut and in. They had a bit more venison for breakfast and Harry left some in the safe, before packing up and loading the meat onto the horse. Janet watched him cautiously, trying to gauge his feelings, trying to read his face. It certainly wasn’t the usual poker face last night. What was it now? She thought him quite handsome in a rugged, weather beaten sort of way and she could see, as he mounted his horse, there was actually a bit of a smile in the middle of all that stubble.

“So, do you think you’ll be coming back tomorrow?” she asked.

“Will you still be here tomorrow?”

“There’s still a lot of river I haven’t explored yet and I’m not going up to the Tawa Hut,” she said. “Do you think it would be all right if I was still here when you came back?”

“Ah yeah, I suppose that’d be all right. Come on dogs.”

 

First published takahe 87
August 2016