John Millard spent much of his childhood in Wellington and Auckland, catching insects. He now catches them in West Sussex, England. He went to Hertford College, Oxford and has spent 35 years working in journalism, PR and marketing.
“When writing, I do my utmost to remember that familiar dictum from the late, great Elmore Leonard: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’”
They were preparing to have intercourse, he was pretty sure.
Lying flat under the hot February sky, Peter felt the springy grass of the lawn exhale, grow soft and moist beneath his stomach, as the two brownish-yellow spiders, mottled with black, approached each other on the rough concrete path, a few centimetres from his lightly sunburned nose.
The courtship sequence of Trite auricoma, the common golden brown jumping spider, was beginning – just as he’d read in New Zealand Spiders: An Introduction. The male raised his front pair of legs, bent them to one side and waved them up and down, performing a neat side-step at the same time, while keeping his eyes fixed on the crouched, impassive female. He began to approach, legs now pointed forwards and tapping the ground in front of her, getting closer now, even closer, and –
“There you are. Your mum said you’d be here. Come on, we’re going to the beach.”
Peter heard a swish of skirt and smelled a perfume deeper and muskier than his mother’s. He noted a cheery emphasis on ‘beach’, meant to indicate a special treat for which any 11-year-old boy would be grateful, yet nonetheless a compulsory one. He gathered himself into an awkward squat, reluctant to break free of the gravitational pull of the garden and join the vertical world, and looked up to see smooth calves clad in tights, despite the humidity, and feet in strappy white high-heeled sandals.
“Auntie Barbara, I want to stay here. I’m watching …” He felt strange, saying it out loud to an adult, but it was true, so why not? He was going to be a scientist one day. “… spiders mating.”
Peter could sense the tremor of distaste in the legs, which took a pace back. The spiders had long since fled, but Peter knew without looking that Auntie Barbara was scanning the ground with suspicion. “Well, you can do that another time, because we’re going out. Come on now, your mum’s waiting.” Peter sensed a pause for calculation, for recalibration of tone. “It’s a nice day,” she added, more kindly. “You can have an ice-cream.”
And then she was gone, the sandals clacking on the concrete as they receded up the path to the house.
After school every day, and every weekend, the garden was his domain. Long and largely left to its own devices, it had sun-scorched expanses over which iridescent tiger beetles skittered, and shady damp corners that for Peter held the mystery of the native bush in miniature. Inside a rotting log by the compost heap, in a hidden chamber beneath the soft leathery bark, he had found a ghostly white pupa, limbs and antennae folded neatly against its sleeping body, waiting for the secret processes of metamorphosis to run their course. On sunny days he would watch kahu kowhai butterflies – yellow admirals – alight on the hebe flowers and feed, extending their impossibly long and slender tongues for a draught of nectar.
It hadn’t taken many trips to the district library to exhaust its supply of natural history books, but Peter had gathered enough knowledge to have learned the names and habits of the animals that fascinated him: the native ones and those introduced, with blind sentiment or in reckless experiments, by Europeans.
Mum and Dad usually left him to it. Often he was up before them on a Saturday, exploring his territory before going into their bedroom and thrusting his latest find under their noses, wriggling in a jam jar. Dad would put down his morning paper and dutifully examine it, maybe even make a decent stab at identification – “That’s an interesting one you’ve got there: hoverfly is it?” – while Mum would give a cautious smile of encouragement, holding her cup of tea close in both hands and keeping her distance while he explained the significance of the specimen. Then she would move her breakfast tray and pat the sheet next to her: “Come in here for a bit, love. Put that down over there and have a piece of toast with us.” And he would sit with her, amid the warm smells of toast and adult sleep, until the garden urged him outside once more.
But this Saturday was not right. The door of his parents’ room had been firmly closed all morning, and Peter had made some toast himself by the time his mother appeared in the kitchen. “Morning love,” she said, but waved aside the plate he offered, her eyes falling to the table and the folded, unread newspaper he had brought in. And when she turned to go to the bathroom and ruffled his hair, her hand had lingered, as if seeking assurance of his presence.
Dad was not in the house and his car was not in the drive.
“Your father’s had to go away for a bit,” Auntie Barbara – Mum’s friend from two doors away – had told him.
“Oh, work I think. So I thought I’d come and help your mum and make some meals, and do a bit round the house.”
She had been here all day, from soon after breakfast. Glancing in from the garden, Peter could see her sitting opposite Mum at the kitchen table, nodding with unusual frequency and force as she listened. Both clutched cups of tea, but his mother’s remained untouched. He watched it grow cold in her hands.
Peter knew Dad’s job was very important. Testing sheep and cows for diseases was proper scientific work, and sometimes he had to travel far and stay away from home during the week. But not at weekends. And nor was Auntie Barbara a usual weekend feature.
Adding to the mystery was a deepening of the women’s level of intimacy. He knew the rhythms of their conversations in the street: he had listened to enough of them, tugging at his mother’s hand to come away, or plucking leaves from a neighbour’s hedge in frustration. Now, instead of laughter, their speech was punctuated by lengthy silences, heavy with shared knowledge. If he appeared at the back door to report a discovery in the garden, a sentence would be sliced off in mid-air, and Auntie Barbara’s lipsticked mouth would purse for an instant before forming into a smile of greeting. And when his eyes moved to his mother’s paler face, her smile too would take that small instant to arrive, and she would say: “Auntie Barbara and I were just talking”, as if that explained everything, and put everything back to normal.
Auntie Barbara was English like them. But to Peter she was more English, because she had a funny accent – she said ‘coostard’ instead of ‘custard’ – and somehow, with her tights and high heels and sundresses (never slacks or jandals, which she called ‘flip-flops’), she appeared to resist or even deny the environment she now found herself in, on the other side of the world. At the beach, even his mother would dress in shorts and loose shirt, accepting of the heat and the more casual culture in which she now lived. But not Auntie Barbara.
She didn’t have a husband, though Peter had overheard enough conversations to guess that she’d had one at one time. Nor did she have children. She had an air of bruised defiance, of mysterious tragedy still raw, of determined independence, and Peter had no doubt that for some reason, this odd weekend, she was in charge. They were going to the beach.
It held few enticements for him. The garden was contained, yet teeming with interest. The beach was boundless, yet empty. Adults seemed to enjoy its blankness, and found its vacant expanses liberating or relaxing, but to Peter it was a desert.
Too fearful of the waves to go into the water, he felt stranded on the brilliant sand, unable to entertain himself in this expanse, oppressed with shame for not finding it fun.
He was usually rescued by Dad, who would win him over with a kite or a race along the sand, or a skimming-stone contest, while Mum lay sunbathing on a tartan woollen blanket by the floral picnic table and the picnic chairs with their scratchy woven plastic seats. Then Dad would want to wade into the waves and swim for a while, with rapid, splashing strokes, and Peter would make his way across the crusted, scorching sand to the foot of the dunes and perch on a corner of Mum’s blanket. She would stir, raise a hand to shade her face, and open one eye. “Come back to be with your mum have you, Pete?” she would say, or “Had enough of the beach?” or “There’s some squash left, if you want some,” and then smile at him. “Mind you don’t get sand all over me.” And then she’d sink her head back again and settle into the blanket, and Peter would sit with his arms round his knees, watching the sand dry on his legs and feeling the sun bake his pale English back.
And then he would wonder about katipō.
He had never seen one of these small, shy spiders, their black abdomens striped with red, like their cousins the black widows, who constructed their delicate webs at the base of marram grass clumps in the dunes, or in tin cans left behind by picnickers. From his reading he had learned that their name meant ‘night stinger’, indicating that Māori people feared their supposedly fatal bite as much as Europeans. He wondered if they were as deadly as his school friends believed, whether the playground tales of writhing sunbathers, clutching blackened, ballooning limbs, were based on any truth at all. Should he, a follower of science, who had read nearly all 250 pages of New Zealand Spiders, fear katipō? If not, why had he never moved from the corner of the blanket and searched the marram tufts for a web, hung with the dry corpses of beetles and woodlice, or turned over a rusty can, hoping to see the shiny pea-sized animal that was the only venomous creature in God’s Own Country?
They went to the beach in Auntie Barbara’s blue Austin 1100. Peter thought Dad’s caramel Cortina looked the part on the swooping coastal roads, under the big southern sky, but the Austin was dwarfed by the landscape and struggled against the wind. Its sticky vinyl seats, coated with sand from the beach blanket, chafed his bare legs. “This’ll cheer you up,” Auntie Barbara said, presumably to Mum, but Mum said nothing and stared out of the window, and the journey passed in silence.
The women busied themselves with setting out the blanket and picnic furniture between two dunes, before settling down to exchange murmured words, the atmosphere thick with mutual understanding. Mum gave him a thin smile and rubbed his shoulder. “You all right, Pete?” she said, before turning back to Auntie Barbara. Clearly, his duty was to enjoy himself and absolve the adults of any guilt for not engaging with him. He drank some squash, picked at the blanket for a while and then set off, granting them freedom to talk.
As he made his way to the beach, through the remaining low dunes, he glanced back and saw Auntie Barbara up-end a small bottle into his mother’s plastic teacup.
The marram grass whipped his legs as he strode on, through the dry soft sand towards the sea.
For a while he patrolled the tideline, wondering at the cause of the faintly yellow scum the highest-reaching waves left on the sand. He stood still and felt the grains sift between his toes and then grip his feet. He picked up a weathered stick and threw it so it spun end over end through the air and then plunged like a spear into the ground.
Then he heard Auntie Barbara calling him. Her voice was shrill with desperation, her words fractured as she struggled to catch her breath. He’d wandered further from the women than he’d thought, and she’d struggled to catch up with him. It was funny that he’d made her lose her composure and become breathless. But her urgency scared him.
“Peter, your Mum says … well, look, here’s some money. Go and get an ice-cream. What’s your favourite flavour?”
“Chocolate,” said Peter. “No, strawberry.”
“OK, strawberry. Get a strawberry ice-cream. Up there, look, see the shop by the playground, by the slide? Get your ice-cream and sit up there on a swing or somewhere and eat it. Me and your mum have got something to do, and when we’ve finished we’ll come and get you from the playground, all right? Here – go on.”
He squinted at her, silhouetted against the sun, and took warm coins from her hand.
“Off you go,” she said, and there was a note of panic in her voice. She gave a quick look back, towards his mother. “Go on now.”
He shaded his eyes and followed her gaze, searching for Mum in the dunes, as if she could somehow give him permission to go, reassure him that Auntie Barbara’s anxious urging was nothing to be frightened of. But Mum was not at the spot where they had laid down the blanket. She had walked to the top of a dune and was standing in a pose similar to his, eyes shaded, with her back to him, looking towards the car park at the other end of the beach, where they had left the Austin.
“Off you go, Peter!”
With a final look back, he ran to the ice-cream kiosk.
There was a small queue, but even though he had time to sort the coins and present the right change, he fumbled and dropped some into the sand, causing a man in a black vest behind him to tut. Then he had his ice-cream, and busied himself licking off the drips around the top of the cone while he puzzled over Auntie Barbara’s instructions. Why did she want him to stay away while she and Mum did whatever they had to do? What was going on? Was Mum all right?
Drips ran down his fingers as he thought. He didn’t want to sit by himself, not this weekend, when things weren’t right. He wanted to be with Mum. Maybe she’d like it if he broke off the bottom of his cone and made her a mini ice-cream of her own, just like she used to do for him when he was little.
Ignoring Auntie Barbara’s instruction to wait in the playground, he set off to their spot in the dunes, walking quickly. The sun was still high in the unforgiving sky, and in the glare he found it hard to locate the hollow where they had settled. Shielding his eyes and licking the fast-melting ice-cream, he eventually spotted the blanket and the picnic chairs. No sign of Mum, or Auntie Barbara.
No, there was Auntie Barbara. She was striding up above the dunes to the car park, but not to her Austin, which Peter could see in the far corner. And there was Mum, talking to someone, waving her arms … And Auntie Barbara was coming up to them, and they were standing by a caramel-coloured Cortina, and the other person was Dad, and he had his car door open, and his hands on his hips, and he was saying something to Mum and shaking his head …
Peter dealt with the worst of the drips on his ice-cream and broke into a trot. The firm damp beach gave way to deep, powdery sand mixed with blackened twigs and litter, studded with tufts of marram grass.
His feet struggled to find purchase as he searched for a path through the dunes to the car park. He could still see the group of adults, Auntie Barbara standing slightly away from Mum and Dad, and he wanted to shout to them, to tell them he was coming, but he was out of breath and he had to keep glancing at his ice-cream to lick the drips, and then he stumbled and suddenly all that was left in his hand was a cone, and all that was left of the ice-cream was a pool sinking into the soft sand, and hot tears came to his eyes.
He dropped the cone and set off, panting and sobbing, up the dune, running his hardest now, squinting up into the sun through his tears, just making out the scene: Dad getting back into his car, his hand on the door, Mum moving closer to Auntie Barbara, who was putting her arm around her. The sky’s brightness was a dazzling screen in front of him, searing his eyes if he tried to look up for too long.
Nearing the edge of the car park, Peter glimpsed the Cortina’s door close in the same instant that he felt a jab of pain in the sole of his right foot and sprawled into the rough grass. Grabbing his ankle, he saw sticky beads of blood beginning to seep from under his big toe, as pain pulsed through his foot and into his leg.
He could see Mum and Auntie Barbara coming now. They loomed over him, out of the burning sky. “Mum,” he said. He had to explain, but it was so hard to talk through his rasping sobs. “Mum, I trod on a katipō and it bit me. And I dropped … I dropped my ice-cream.”
Mum, Auntie Barbara, the doctor, all agreed that he had stood on a broken bottle, that it was terrible the way people chucked their rubbish on the beach, that he was lucky it hadn’t gone through a tendon. He had three days off school, and a lot of ice-cream.
Soon it would be autumn in the garden. Already, when he padded out in his slippers on weekend mornings, the spiralled snares of the fat orb-web spiders were shining with dew. But Dad wasn’t coming back.
First published takahe 87