Rachel Smith writes short and flash fiction, and poetry. Her work has been published in JAAM, takahē and Flash Frontier.
“Why do I write? – the extreme challenge of putting the right words together and the wonderful sense of fulfilment when you perfect a simple sentence.”
A Nice Bloke
The sheet rose and billowed, and for a long second it was all he could see.
Tait moved with careful practice – corners tucked tight at the top and the sheet pulled taut at the bottom, until it rested across the mattress without a wrinkle. He folded the top sheet back in a precise line, and layered on a blanket, floral covers and fat pillows.
It was perfect and all he wanted to do was leap, fall on his belly and close his eyes.
“You done?” His mother’s voice called from the hallway.
“Yep.” Tait ran a last hand over the covers and looked out the window. Across the park, past the old swing set and slide, the main street was quiet. Worn concrete buildings rested on the footpath, and a tangle of tinsel shone from a pole outside the book shop.
A figure moved into view. A young guy wearing a large pack walked slowly towards the motel’s flashing Vacancy sign. He stopped in the middle of the park and looked up, looked right at Tait, and gave him a grinning salute before walking on. Tait stayed, waiting until he heard the familiar ding-dong from the door downstairs.
“What are you doing? We need to clean those toilets by the bunk room.” His mother stood in the doorway beckoning him with a yellow-gloved hand and a blue bucket.
“Coming.” He closed the door behind him.
The toilets were a mess. A group of young backpackers had visited the cave and the pub, and left early on the bus that morning.
Tait bent to peel a used condom from the bathroom floor, and flicked it into the bin. He peeked into the toilet cubicle, grabbed a bottle of bleach and a toilet brush, and tried not to gag.
When he came out the guy was there, washing his hands quietly at the basin. He looked up and caught Tait’s eye in the mirror.
“Shit job, eh.”
Tait gave a weak smile and moved to the cleaning trolley. “This bathroom’s closed for cleaning, sorry. You can use the one near the front entrance though.”
“No worries – I just wanted to wash my hands anyway.” He looked around shaking his head. “Some people have no idea, do they?”
He wiped his hands on the back of his jeans and walked out.
They ate their sandwiches in the kitchen. His mother moved from bench to cupboard to table, snatching small bites. His father rested, taking long slow mouthfuls washed down with a slosh of tea.
“Don’t know about you two, but I’m done in today.” His father leaned back in the chair and ran a hand over his face.
“That’ll be because you were up all night with those rowdy kids,” she said. “Don’t know why you let them in … and another one today.”
“They were just having a bit of fun. Filled that whole room for a night. What do you think, Tait?”
Tait stood, took his plate to the sink, rinsed and stacked it. They were disgusting, he thought, and lucky.
He turned and gave a grin. “They were OK. Not too much mess.”
His Dad gave a nod. “See. And this one’ll be OK. He’s on his own and asked about work, so he might stick around for a bit.”
“Where’s he from?” asked Tait.
“Somewhere in Aussie. You should go say, hi.”
Tait nodded and walked out the back door, along the path and into his sleep out.
He propped the door open with a couple of weighty textbooks, letting light and air into the small room. Posters of ripped guys riding cool blue waves were plastered across the walls, and a dusty guitar rested in the corner.
He lay on his bed watching the dark line that tracked across the plaster ceiling, tracing it with his eyes from over the door frame to just above his head.
“Tait? You in?”
Tait sat up quickly to see the guy standing in his doorway.
“Sorry, mate … did I wake you?”
“Not really. Just about to play.” He nodded to the guitar.
“Nice one. I play a bit too. May I?” He walked in, filling the room, and tuned the guitar with well-practised hands. He began to strum, played a few chords and closed his eyes as he sang.
Tait looked away, felt as though he should leave even though it was his room.
“Who are you?”
“Me? Shit.” He put the guitar down and held out his hand to Tait. “I’m Hef … like Hugh Hefner, except I was named when I was a chubby little heffalump.”
His hand felt cool and worn in Tait’s own.
“I’m from Perth, passing through town and hoping to get a bit of work. Your dad told me you are the man around town here, that you might be able to give me a tour.”
Tait flicked through his head for a ready excuse. None came.
“Sure, I guess.”
“Appreciate it. When’s a good time for you?”
“I’ve got a bit on this afternoon … how about 5?”
“Great. I’ll meet you out front.” Hef walked off with a slight swagger. Tait wondered if he was a cowboy.
“So, this is the main street – there’s the school down the end, the book shop and the department store. The supermarket is just past the school.” Tait and Hef walked down the street, watching as the shops closed for the evening.
“Did you go to school here?” Hef asked.
“Yeh, right to the end. Most of them either left town or got work on a farm.”
Hef slowed to look at a display of menswear in the window – crisp shirts and pants and shiny leather boots.
“And you stayed here to work in the family business?”
“I left. I went to uni for a year. It didn’t work out though, so here I am. For now, anyway.”
Tait saw his small room at the university hostel, his bags stacked beside the door and curtains drawn. That was all there was, frozen in his room while others joked outside on their way to classes or the pub. His parents had come to take him home in the end, and it was all over.
“And this is the pub,” said Hef. “Let’s have a beer. My shout.”
Tait followed. It was dark and unfamiliar inside. Hef ordered two beers and they sat at a table over by the pokies, watched closely by the regulars.
“You don’t come here much,” Hef said.
“Not really my scene.”
“My dad owns a pub back home. I thought I might ask for a job here and stay for a few weeks.”
Tait nodded. “Then what?”
“I don’t make too many plans, just go with the flow, if you know what I mean.” Hef smiled. “I’ve been on the road for a while now, just packed my bag and left. Had some mean adventures on the way. We’ve got to make the most of it while we’re young, eh.” Hef emptied his glass. “Finish up and I’ll get us another.”
Tait swallowed it down, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His head felt light and free.
“Here you go.” Hef returned with two more and a couple of shots. “Down this.”
They drank, Tait vaguely aware of his raised voice as he told Hef his tips for bed-making.
“So what else can you do in this town? Any nightclubs?”
“Nope. But we do have an awesome cave.”
“Sweet. Shall we check it out?”
They set off down the road, out of town.
“It’s up past the school … we should have a torch though.”
Hef took out a lighter. “This will do.” He pulled a joint out of his pocket, lit it and passed it to Tait. “Make the walk quicker, eh.”
Tait took a long inhale, followed by a hacking cough. His head began to spin and he tried not to think about where they were going. He’d only been there once, with the local kaumātua and his class at school.
“This way.” He took a path through the grass at the side of the road, climbed a fence and headed for trees in the distance. “My mates used to take girls here at the weekend.”
“Not you?” Hef looked across at him.
Hef smoked and strolled, humming a tune under his breath. “Look at that sunset. You don’t get that in the city.”
The sky reddened over the mountains, long arms of colour reaching out towards them. Tait stopped where a few boulders rested near the first trees.
Tait nodded as Hef walked past him, past the sign with its dim letters of warning.
The mouth of the cave was large and Tait felt as though he was being swallowed. The lighter flickered around the walls of the cavern, showing a dark tunnel leading deeper. Tait looked back – the sky was still warm and light.
“Come on,” Hef called.
The tunnel was smaller than he remembered. They hunched low to pass through, rock scraping at his bare legs until they emerged into another cavern.
“Wicked.” Hef held his lighter up above his head and they saw lines on the rock walls, patterns and shapes.
Tait crouched down, a wave of lightness moving through his head and down to his stomach.
“No more weed for you,” Hef said. “Come on.”
Two tunnels continued on – he took the left, getting down on his hands and knees to move through. Tait felt the weight of the rock around him, the mountain pressing down on his back. The tunnel divided again, and Tait followed, until Hef stopped at the next cavern.
“You been this far in before?” The light flickered and played on Hef’s face, working shadows beneath his eyes and cheek bones.
Tait shook his head and sat down on a rock. Hef sat beside him.
“You can just feel it, man, feel the energy down here. It’s what you call tapu right?” Hef grinned. “Makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger.”
Hef leaned across, ran a finger down Tait’s cheek. He watched as Hef moved closer, put his lips to Tait’s own. They were gentle, his warm breath carrying smells of beer and weed. Tait closed his eyes and felt his own lips move in return.
He blinked open, saw Hef’s rough cheek close to his, the small flame flicker and the shadows merge at the back of the cave. He pushed Hef away, stood and grabbed the lighter, leaving them both in darkness.
“Tait. It’s only a kiss.”
Tait was gone, flicking at the lighter as he moved down the tunnel.
“Come back – we’ll pretend it never happened.”
Hef’s voice retreated behind him, becoming sharper when he realised Tait was not stopping.
Tait emerged into darkness, not complete but pricked with stars. He took the back streets through town, slipped into his room and tumbled down a deep well into sleep.
“Bit rough this morning?” His mum handed him gloves and a bucket. “Start on the back room.”
Tait moved the vacuum cleaner across carpet, watching as it pulled at the loose threads by the doorway. He was on his hands and knees, working on a small dark stain in the carpet, when his father walked by.
“You seen that guy?”
“Not since last night. We had a few drinks and then I came home. He wanted to go for a walk, so I left him to it.”
“Keep an eye out, will you – got a job lined up for him.”
Tait nodded and kept moving, the strong smell of carpet cleaner in his nostrils.
Tait slipped into the bunkroom early the next morning. Hef’s pack sat waiting at the end of his bed. He rushed to the toilet next door and vomited neatly into the clean white bowl. He was leaning over the basin, white knuckles gripping the porcelain, when his father came in.
“You OK, son?”
“No sign of that guy – I reckon he must have done a runner on us.” His father grinned. “Left all his stuff behind though so that’ll have to do for payment, I guess.”
“He did mention wanting to work in the vineyards up north,” said Tait. “Maybe someone passing through offered him a job.”
“Well, it’s his loss,” said his father. “You finish up here and come find me.”
The contents of Hef’s pack was laid out across the kitchen table.
“It’s worth nothing,” his mother said, stuffing the worn clothes into a rubbish bag.
His father shook out an envelope filled with photos, shots of Hef and some guy, both topless and grinning.
“This will go in the bin, too,” he said, shaking his head. “Seemed like a nice bloke. I guess you never can tell.”
First published takahe 87