Payment to the Ferryman

It had probably started when they saw the golden bird hanging in the sunset over Manukau. Hovering like a fantail, but so much bigger. It was full of people who would never know how magnificent it looked. The cars would surely have been tiny black metallic ants below them, glinting yellow in the light of the setting sun; the same yellow as car sickness. The plane coming in so low that they felt as if they could have reached up and slapped it.

Because it was a typical Auckland sunset, the entire sky was orange. People said the city wasn’t beautiful, but of course it was, especially when the sun started sinking. Venus hung in the sky, brimming with liquid gold. The Russians had landed space probes on Venus back in the seventies and eighties, one of which had sent back photos of the black rock and sulphuric surface atmosphere before imploding. It was a wonder that they hadn’t heard about that earlier, given how long ago that had happened. They liked the internet. It told you the secrets that people didn’t tell you in real life. A bit like Noah’s Insta.

Another plane was coming in, with three diamonds blazing in its belly. 

They couldn’t go back to the house because of Noah, so now they were stuck driving around. But why not? They would do a tour of tunnels. It was an underground world at night anyway. What was the line of that song? ‘There’s two kind of people in the world, the day people and the night people… And it’s the night people’s job to get the day people’s money.’ Ray Wiley Hubbard. The lyric repeated relentlessly in their head. It vaguely reminded them of that story about Hades and Charon and the River Styx that Noah had told them, although they couldn’t really remember how that went.

They were still trying to shake it when they hit the first tunnel. The darkness felt like the passageway to somewhere else.

They could see speed cams hanging from the apex of the walls. The concrete was painted yellow, black and white, now coincidentally the colours of Covid. It was like a bad egg memory from childhood. They liked their eggs poached. Was that relevant? They couldn’t think. For some reason, a childhood rhyme came back to them, replacing Ray Wiley Hubbard. ‘First the worst, second the best, third the golden princess.’

What had that kid at school said? ‘Third the golden bird.’ The polished surfaces of the cars reflected the lines of lights overhead as if they were momentary suns, swimming in a puddle in their lap until they exited the other end. They felt both hot and cold washing across their skin, like the tide coming in and going out. Just like Noah, always blowing hot and cold. It was confusing to them as to why he had to be like that. Perhaps it was because he was Greek.

They pulled into the gas station. There was a metallic taste under their tongue, as if they’d been sucking on a coin. A man with a doberman was smoking over by the Rockgas tank. People felt like copies of themselves. They couldn’t put their finger on why and they wanted to stare, but it was best to keep in your own zone. The darkness was muddy. Murky. 

Inside, they found their brain overstimulated by the white ceramic toilets and shiny white walls. They stared at their face in the mirror. They looked like shit. They felt like shit. The dead fly in the porcelain sink had gone since last week. But perhaps they’d been at a different gas station. There were so many parts to Auckland that no one could hope to go to them all and even if they did, the city changed constantly, and no one ever went back to exactly the same place twice. 

It was as if the city, and perhaps the whole universe, was a living thing, and that changing was the same thing as breathing.

There was a mound of Candy Corn on sale at the counter when they went to pay for the petrol. Yellow, orange and pink. Waxy circus shit, they thought. A Greek man with a monobrow turned towards them. Another Greek man. Had they seen him before? He was very distinctive, even with a mask on, but they honestly couldn’t remember if this was a repeat or not. It felt like it was, but there was no proof; where they could point to a specific time and place, and say, it was then, it was there. It was hard to tell what had already happened, and what had not. Space and time had never been their forte. 

Back in the car, a barber’s neon pole twirled in a shop window like an American fever dream. Further along, people spilled out of the door of a club, where bouncers stood guard like trolls. Clubs were the places where they felt the loneliest. They didn’t want to have to go back to looking for somebody. They wanted Noah. Noah’s eyes were that kind of brown that was almost reddish, like the mineral rich mud at the bottom of a barrel. Strange how it was the little details that got stuck.

They felt as if someone was following them; that uneasy on-guard feeling where nothing was wrong on the surface, but which still left them feeling dull with dread. Perhaps they were in a horror movie. They wouldn’t be surprised. Something felt whack. 

Their eyes met those of the man sitting alongside them at the traffic lights. He was an older man, possibly Chinese. The man looked back at them, and slowly drew his hands under his chin, bowing his head in a gesture of prayer. An acknowledgement of the only moment they would ever share? Or was he merely signalling that it was game on?

A white neon sign with a hollow cross said God is in the city. They thought it was hard to tell. Either God was, or God wasn’t. God wasn’t interested in sinners. They were a sinner but it was because of Noah that they’d started drinking again. They’d been sober for quite a while, but it seemed to be just when the two of them were the happiest together that Noah had changed his mind and suddenly became as cold as if they’d never met.

 A woman stood on the footpath under the shoplight. She was Red Alice, with bright red curls swirling down the back of her short white dress. Red lips. Red heels. They were sure that if they had kissed her, she would have tasted like jam tart. She leaned into the window of a sleek white car, where a diamond in the shape of a snowflake dangled from the mirror like Xmas in another hemisphere. A band of white light splaying the bonnet pulsated and flickered as if the driver was going to be moving a house across the country. 

Skylines were beautiful cars. Spoilers. Rear lights like red oven elements. They were definitely in a movie, because they realised that they were driving the same model as the car next to Red Alice. Twin cars. The two white Skylines, one moving and one not, traded positions like ferries on the surface of a dark sea. Now Red Alice was behind them. They thought about a pale ferry that they’d seen earlier. It had sped across the distant horizon, under the already setting sun, as if it had been the white rabbit of ferries, late for a very important date.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was playing on Spotify as they hit the next tunnel. The glowing cat’s eyes were laid out like rubies and barley sugars placed into lines by a neurodivergent kid. Reflective signs in the shape of dark yellow diamonds with black tramp stamps gave directives to the drivers. Deluge zones painted on the sides helpfully marked time and space. What even were deluge zones anyway? They briefly had the sensation of being trapped inside a submerged submarine.

It was a relief to come out the other side, where trumpet players whose shiny instruments reflected their car like a flock of flighty white doves were lined up along the footpath outside a community centre, playing for those who wanted to come in for a night-time vaccination. They hadn’t chosen to get vaccinated. There was too much shit going around about the risks, and most of it was probably true. You couldn’t trust the government.  And they couldn’t hear the trumpets at all. It felt as if they were in a separate universe. Perhaps some sort of wormhole joined them. No one knew what worm holes were exactly. Were they the massive black holes out there somewhere in the infinite galaxy, or were they something more subtle, like death?

A red OPEN sign glowed in the window of a takeaway shop with a darkened interior that most clearly was not open. An inexplicable orange crown sat on top of the red letters. They found a Denny’s instead. The inside was crawling with young people fresh from sex in the back of cars; the girls’ lips still smudged from the alcohol. Nobody seemed to be looking at them, but they were pretty sure that they were. Perhaps they were pretending to be casually looking across their table towards the menu, or dipping their chips in their sundaes, but were secretly taking notes to relay later. Strangely, they’d lost their sense of smell. They decided not to eat. They felt clammy. Hunger had disappeared. And anyway, there was no spoon.

They ruminated instead. They didn’t know why Noah couldn’t see his own cycle. Every time things were going well, he suddenly took offence to something imaginary and started going on about deserving better, and there was nothing they could do to convince him that it wasn’t fair. Was it them who deserved better, or were they not good enough? All they knew was that it hurt every time he did that. 

They had a sense that the universe was a rabbit hole. When they closed their eyes it seemed as if they were looking down a long spinning tunnel where their vision would have otherwise converged if their eyes were open, and they weren’t able to tell if it was narrowing or widening. Perspective was impossible to gauge. The blackness at the centre reminded them of the pupil of an eye, while the walls were rotating pinheads of silvery light, possibly stars, they couldn’t be sure. And were they at the big end of the telescope, or at the small end?

They had a sudden thought that it might be a movie projector. But were they the movie? Or were they watching a movie? It was like a puzzle, and they had to put the pieces together. Perhaps they were getting it wrong. It wasn’t that they understood it and didn’t like it, it was just that they didn’t understand at all.

It was a relief to be in the car and moving again. The next tunnel was darker. Smaller and less used. Shadows pranced on the walls. Teleporting from one concrete pillar to the next alongside the car, their fuzzy darkness at constant war with the flickering glow of the pink lights. Cave art for the city. 

The tar rolled out ahead of them like liquorish. ‘Go ahead and insert any random ass line,’ sang LP. Spotify was good. You only heard what you wanted to hear. They glanced at their own face in the review mirror. Their pupils fluttered like dark butterflies. They felt sick, and more than a bit dizzy. Perhaps it was Covid. Best not to think about it. 

Instead, they turned their thoughts to Noah. They’d even drawn him a diagram. ‘You do this, and say this, and then I feel this, and you do this and this happens and then you want me to come back and say sorry to you. And then we start again.’ It had arrows diving into circles in all directions. Not that Noah had paid any attention. It had just become one more thing for him to take offence to.

They thought they could hear a ruru during a brief break between the songs in their playlist. This was replaced by a dawn chorus of birds, all waking and talking amongst themselves about their joy in yet another salmon coloured day. There should be no birdsong. This was the suburbs. It was night. They were riding in a sound-proof car. They felt relieved when Electrograve’s ‘Quad Oscillator’ came on. The sound rippled right through them, and any other sound ceased to exist.

They came down Bouverie Street, where the street lights looked like small spaceships. Up ahead, the houses got smaller on both sides. Or bigger. They blinked. It was getting harder and harder. It felt as if the world was slipping away to the left, and they had to keep refocusing to keep it in place. What direction had that tunnel between their eyes been spinning? They pulled over and closed their eyes again. Left. But as soon as they noticed which way it went, it started spinning the other way. There was no point in stopping.

A black Hummer was poised opposite them at the lights. XIII said the personalised number plate. They frowned. 13 had been the number on the plate of the white car that Red Alice had leaned into. What had she been doing? Selling herself? Buying drugs? Kissing her son goodbye? And what was the universe trying to say?

They thought of the dream they’d had where everything was marked with the small rotation arrows that their iPhone displayed when they were editing their photos. In the dream, everything had been broken up into parts that could be rotated. Across bands that slid between each other. What had happened next? They couldn’t remember.

Speed. Speed mattered. Twin signs in this tunnel each had a black number 80 inside a circle of metallic yellow. 80 plus 80 was 160. People shouldn’t say that they’d learned nothing at school. Because here it was, the culmination of all that. They were good at speed. They raced towards the turquoise lights at the far end of the tunnel. How long had they been in this tunnel for? It could have been eternity as far as they knew, but perhaps it had been no time at all. They remembered an incident where they’d gone to the toilet at a club, and when they’d come out, it had been closing time, although they were sure that they’d only been in there for a few minutes, and that it had been well before midnight when they went in.

As they emerged from the mouth of the tunnel, they came to a huge statue of a shiny golden horse, a bit like the Asian shop lucky cats, but so much more enormous. They pictured themselves holding onto its neck, a sword held high above their head with its tip scraping a furrow in black sky; triumphant, victorious, untouchable. For a few moments, somewhere between all or none, they were riding up there, while the wind blew through their hair. 

The black mirror windows of the city offices reflected the statue in dark gold, as if the world was but a big infinity box. The magnificent horse wasn’t quite a golden bird. But it did have wings. Third the golden bird.

A white ferry. A golden horse. And that big aeroplane earlier, like a fat ruru in the sunset, heading towards the night. But perhaps that was the golden bird. Forwards and back felt the same. They’d lost count, they’d lost their grip on that maths they’d had a hold of only a moment ago, back in the tunnel. They perceived three. But did the tunnels count? If so, then it was maybe six, maybe nine.

How did things happen? It was when they’d seen Noah’s Insta that they’d gotten angry again. Hell yeah, they’d wanted to kill somebody, to watch the black blood seep out of their ears. Every time they hurt someone, they saw their father in the face of whoever it was. They’d put all the energy of their revenge fantasies into grinding the pain into Noah, so that he would have to feel what they’d felt. And now, look at that. They’d become their father. And it turned out that Noah was not their father but their younger self.

They remembered when they’d come across a kid from their old neighbourhood, strangely grown up now. They’d recognized him straight away, but he hadn’t recognised them.  ‘Oh,’ he’d said eventually. ‘You’re one of those kids from that house where they never came outside.’

Suddenly everything tilted, and then they were upside down and sliding and the next corner was coming into focus as if they were using their fingers to enlarge a picture on their phone screen. There was plenty of time to think about this before they started spinning as if they were in a gyroscope, until at some point, they no longer knew which way anything faced.

They weren’t sure why, but they couldn’t hear anything anymore either, not the music, not even the crumpling. It was as if someone had turned the sound off. 

An empty bottle of Jack was the only glass that remained unscathed when everything stopped. It was as if someone has smashed multiple mirrors and left the mess of diamonds on the road. 

Ambulance lights of red and gold swirled around as if they were painting a stage set, while police cars added tinges of blue to the outskirts. Bandages were wound and tightened like ribbons, rhythmic ambulance gymnastics under the lights of the night, trying to hold life in place as they continued to slip away, falling head first into the next tunnel.

The blackness was so thick that the stars couldn’t get in, and the only universe on offer was reflected in the PCP mirrored face plates of the medics, which caught the gold of the streetlights and offered nothing of the person inside. A concrete bank in the background glistened as if it was wet. 

There was no observer yet, but there would be.

Alice Tawhai is a short fiction writer whose poetic stories give voice to fringe characters, to Māori, and minority lives and culture. Her three short story collections, published through Huia, include: Festival of Miracles (2005), an extraordinary rainbow of cosmopolitan New Zealand characters; Luminous (2007), which describes that bittersweet combination, the darkness and beauty of contemporary life; and Dark Jelly (2011), which explores the nature of reality, and people living on the fringe of society. ‘The power of Tawhai’s writing,’ Philippa Jamieson (NZ Listener) wrote, ‘is in its simplicity and its dreamlike quality. The dialogue saunters out of people’s mouths, full of colloquialisms. While much of the language is everyday, it’s spangled with metaphor and poetry’.

Alice’s stories and collections have drawn literary accolades. Luminous was shortlisted for the Montana Book Award for Fiction (2008). The NZ Listener judged Festival of Miracles as one of the ten best books of 2005. In the Montana Book Awards, judges regarded this collection as one of three deserving candidates for the Best First Book Award for Fiction (2006).

Alice’s work has been anthologised widely in New Zealand, including Lost in Translation: New Zealand Stories, and Some Other Country: New Zealand’s Best Short Stories 4th edition. She has been published in literary journals in New Zealand and Australia. She has also contributed to the Goethe-Institut New Zealand’s Once Upon a Time, a collaborative online project for contemporary New Zealand fairy tales.

Her first novel, Aljce in Therapy Land (Lawrence & Gibson, 2021), traverses workplace bullying, online relationships and stoned friendships, with a good measure of Wonderland added in. A private person, Alice Tawhai is a pen name for an author who prefers to let her writing speak for itself. This she has achieved. As reviewer Louise Wareham said of Festival of Miracles: ‘Tawhai writes like a dream’.