Heather Bauchop lives in North East Valley in Dunedin with her partner and daughter. She has spent her working life writing history – currently histories and assessments of historic heritage – writing other people’s stories.
“I’ve only recently started writing for myself. What a relief! Words that are not policed! Helicopter emerged from a creek at Himatangi Beach that I had nightmares about when I was little.”
The water is dark and pleading. Roots hold up the riverbank with their tangled hands. The sand slides into the water with a slump that ripples in semi-circles of light, blinking like navigation beacons. The water pulls me.
“I had that dream again,” I told Mum in the morning, after I’d straightened my sleeping bag on the camp bed.
“Which one was that?” Mum says. She’s polishing the cutlery. I see her face upside down in the spoon.
“The water one.”
“Did you get wet?” She picks up a fork and with her breath creates a cloud on the steel and then polishes the grey away.
“No, I …”
“Well, there you are then.” Mum scrapes a knife with her fingernail, turns it over, rubs it with her cloth, and puts it away. She removes a fork from the knife compartment. “Can’t you ever put anything away in the right place? I have to do everything myself. You’re putting fingerprints everywhere. Go find your brother. Take him somewhere.”
James is six. He’s sitting outside the awning door, one foot tucked under his bottom, his chin on his other knee. “The helicopter’s rotor blade’s an aerofoil. It has a tail rotor as well to stop the helicopter from spinning the wrong way. This is a Russian helicopter so its rotor spins clockwise.” James doesn’t say much except about machines. He loves machines. James flies his helicopter, making it hover before completing a banking turn and landing by the blue plastic Jeep parked by the daisies. There are two men sitting in the Jeep. Their bodies are made of wood, a rod with holes drilled at the top and bottom, through which plastic-coated wire has been pushed and bent to form arms and legs. They have wooden heads and hair made of wool. Their faces are drawn on with marker pen. Dad made them for Christmas.
“Mum says we have to go somewhere,” I hold out my hand for James. I can see Mum standing at the bench finishing the dishes. James takes the two men out of the Jeep and holds them to his chest. He has the helicopter in his other hand. “Come on.” He’s got no spare hands, so I walk next to him. He drops the man with orange hair and I wait for him to brush sand out of the man’s hair. The park’s next to the motor camp; there’s a gap in the hedge and I duck through. James doesn’t have to bend over. He runs to the tractor – it’s his favourite.
“Tractor,” he says. “Massey Harris.”
He’s too small to climb on to the seat, so I lift him. The metal’s shiny from all the kids’ bottoms.
James turns the wheel. “Putta putta putta” goes James’ tractor voice. “Putta putta putta. My tractor at home’s a Ferguson tractor.” James bounces on the seat. His tractor at home’s red like this one. Most of this tractor’s red is rust.
I lean on the rear tyre. It’s hot. I close my eyes. I can smell the sea on the wind. The long grass rattles.
“Putta putta putta,” goes James.
I can hear the dark water in my dream. I open my eyes. “Had enough?”
James allows himself to be lifted down. He runs ahead, goes around the swings and towards the gate at the side of the park. I know where he’s going.
Leaves and ice-block wrappers chase the wind round the corner of the hall and swirl next to the seat by the paddle-boat pond. Somebody’s left a fish and chip packet under the seat. There’s a gull pulling at the paper and some chips scattered nearby. Past the hall, the road turns from tarseal to gravel to sand, and, to the right, the creek waits for the tide. The sea is a fringe at the edge of flat sand. Midges are dancing in the light between the pines and the hall. A set of wide terraced steps runs along the side of the pond.
The boatshed’s at the edge of the pond. It’s padlocked.
“No boats today.”
James has dropped the men and is waving a stick at a gull hovering in the wind. At the corner of the hall the lupins shiver and the wind tips the top of the pines.
Last summer James and I went in a pedal boat. The man held the boat while I stepped in. The boat rocked under my feet – I had to hold out my hands before I could sit down. James wouldn’t let go his helicopter, so the man had to pick him up and hand him to me. Little waves slapped against the boat. James sat down clutching his helicopter. He looked like a doll in an oversized blue and white bucket, his head just peeking out. I had to stretch my legs and slide forward to reach the pedals. With only me pedalling, I had to use the rudder to stop going in circles. I pedalled to the middle of the pond. A gull landed in the water next to us. James stood up.
“Black-backed Gull!” he shouted and fell out.
I tried to stand up, but my feet slipped. I could see the man waving his arms at the edge of the pond. I slithered over to the other side of the boat and reached for James. I grabbed his arm, but his skin was slick. I grabbed again and got a handful of T-shirt and pull him to the edge of the boat. James spluttered, his hair plastered against his head.
“Helicopter,” James said and pointed at the water.
The man came wading over. The water’s only up to his waist. He hauled James into the boat. “You alright, boyo?” He put his arms around James’ shoulders.
“Helicopter,” James said looking into the man’s face.
“Helicopter,” the man said and looked into the water. He felt around with his feet and then reached down. “Helicopter,” he said and handed James the helicopter. James turned the rotor with his finger and smiled. The man grabbed the painter and pulled us back to the side of the pond. He lifted James and held his hand out for me. “There you go, Missy, you gotta look out for that boy.” My hands were still shaking. James stood on the path and there was a puddle at his feet.
I bought us both an ice cream at the kiosk. I had mint and chocolate chip and James had hokey pokey. He licked the ice cream from around the hokeys and the ice cream ran over his fingers and dripped on the concrete. “Grasshopper ice cream,” James said and pointed to my ice cream. I gave him a taste. We pretended to crunch the chips of grasshopper. His hair dried and fluffed out from his head.
Mum was folding tea towels when we got back.
“I got wet,” James said.
“You’re dry now.” Mum glanced up before folding the tea towels and putting them away.
“No boats,” I say again.
James picks up the men and the helicopter and walks towards the kiosk. “Ice cream?”
The shutters are closed. The paint on the Tip Top sign is flaking off. The prices have washed off the blackboard, there are streaks of bird shit.
“No ice cream either.”
We walk around the pond, there’s scum floating around the edges, leaves bobbing next to sticks and plastic wrappers floating nearby. James crouches and puts down the men and the helicopter. There’s a big stick on the path and he picks it up and pokes the rubbish. A wrapper is hooked on the end of the stick. “Fish?” he says and looks at me.
“Mum says that’s dirty,” I say. “Do you want to go and look for fish?” James nods and picks up the men and the helicopter. “Ok, come on then.”
Behind the pond, the corrugated iron is flapping against the fence post. I push the loose sheet aside and step through. I hold the iron back for James. He drops the yellow-haired man and I have to rescue it from the long grass.
It’s like someone’s shut a door. The fence is taller than me. The trees are taller than the fence and across the creek is like a wall of black – macrocarpas lean over the water, their roots exposed, the ground collapsed underneath. The dark creek washes idly against the bank.
“Fish,” says James.
I help him climb down the bank where it’s low and there’s a sandy beach wide enough for us both to sit. We crouch amidst the twigs and pine needles. James picks up a cone and throws it into the creek.
“You’ll scare the fish,” I tell him.
He puts his finger to his lips. “Ssshh.”
“Yes, ssshh.” I put my finger to my lips. We are below the bank. The creek is reflecting the clouds in a narrow strip of sky, but mostly it’s reflecting trees. James opens his mouth. I put my finger to my lips again and then point to the creek. At first all I can see are trees, jagged shadows black on black water, with a lazy eddy of passing light. And then I can see a pile of leaves drifting in a hollow in the creek bed.
“Fiisssshhh.” James points.
“Just leaves,” I say.
“FFFIIIISSSHH,” James insists. There’s a flash of movement. “See!”
The fish is gone. We watch but there’s no other movement. James is watching with his finger on his lips. The creek shushes. There are no more fish.
“All gone,” James says.
“All gone,” I say and I help him up the bank.
The path winds away from the fence and climbs between the pines and the dunes. The lupins push between the trees and the marram grass. The air is sweet with their yellow scent.
James walks in front of me. Sometimes he has to bend over to get up the hill. He won’t let go the men or the helicopter. At the top of the rise, the bank levels out. Even though we’re closer to the sky, it is dark. The ground is slippery with pine needles. To one side the bank slides away, a lattice of roots and sand, pine needles caught in pockets, with the creek black at the bottom.
“Helicopter,” James says and there’s a skidding sound and I see the black of his eyes, and a flash of yellow T-shirt. A dull splash.
“James!” I lean over the bank. At first all I can see are black trees, then, past the reflection, dull gold in cold water. I will fall if I lean further. I run back down the track and slide down the bank, bringing sand and pine needles down with me. I hit the water. It comes up to my knees but when I reach my foot out, I can’t touch the bottom. I wade up the edge of the creek following the strip of reflected sky.
I know I’m in the right place because the orange-haired man is caught in roots at the edge of creek. I take a breath and put my head under the water. There is only tea-coloured water and a dapple of shadows. I come up for air and go down again. Only eddying leaves and a helicopter, its rotor pushed clockwise by the current.
I pick up the helicopter and the orange-haired man and run up the rise and down the short cut through the lupins to the camp.
Mum’s chopping carrots. She measured the dice once to show me how even it was.
I put the helicopter and the orange-haired man down on the bench. The orange-haired man’s hair is wet.
“Don’t put those there, they’re dirty.”
“I got wet,” I say.
“You’re nearly dry now,” Mums glances up. The knife slides through the carrots: “See, perfect one-centimetre dice.”
First published takahe 87