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Near Drybread are three baches in a gully running back into the Dunstan Range. Not the easiest place to find. A note had been left for Theo at the paper which ended, ‘Don’t say anything and come alone.’ It wasn’t as mysterious as it sounded. He was covering a story about a woman from Sacramento, Penny Maine-King, who had fled back to New Zealand with her child in defiance of a Californian court order that awarded custody to her estranged husband. Now she was faced with arrest and a warrant for the return of the child issued by the Family Court.
Such cases had become quite common, but the editor and chief reporter expected added interest because the couple had been in one of those American television reality shows. They’d been voted out early in the series, but even such C grade celebrity was enough to excite a good many readers. The barrenness of some people’s lives is appalling. Theo’s friend Nicholas said two-thirds of the paper’s readers could be gassed and they’d never be missed.
The chief reporter, Anna, hoped to link the pair’s problems with the pressures of the programme. ‘See if we can get the two stories to come together,’ she said. ‘They’ll feed off each other: the whole television thing and then the marriage collapsing because of the stress, and she doing a runner back here with the cute kid. And originally she’s a Kiwi, you know.’
Theo couldn’t see the fascination of it, and in fact the television angle had proved something of a fizzer, but it was the sort of investigative story senior journalists are expected to tackle. It protected him, too, from humdrum rounds of local politics, agriculture or geriatric health. And the husband was rich, at least by New Zealand standards. Anna said people like to read about the rich being in the shit. The greater the fall, the more enjoyable the contemplation of it by those who are lowly themselves.
Penny Maine-King’s directions took him into the Manuherikia Valley and finally to that isolated gully: a cottage, the original part of which was sod, and the addition grey, unpainted wood. It was half hidden from the road by an overgrown macrocarpa hedge, the green defiantly incongruous amid the drought. There was no lawn, no garden, no fence to complete the boundary the great hedge pronounced, no gate even, and unseen sheep had grazed to the small concrete front step, and shat in the shade the house made in the everlasting afternoons. A water tank was fed from the roof. The long-drop dunny was twenty metres or so from the house, and a little higher on the slope. A blue hatchback was parked behind the hedge, and a red trike lay on its side in the yellow grass. So dry was the dirt that Theo could see cracks like lightning strikes, as if the ground had given up the ghost.
The other two cottages were hundreds of metres away, equally humble, weathered and pegged into the landscape by a succession of extreme winters and summers. They had no garages, and no other cars were parked beside them. Theo had arrived at the unglamorous part of Central Otago: far from lakes, or ski fields. What could you do here in the gold miners’ exhausted gully, except shoot rabbits, wander the bare hills, or shut yourself up in one of the three coffin baches?
Theo could see into the house through the wooden frame window beside the door. In its modest length the room went through the transition from kitchen, dining room to lounge. The bench, sink and woodburning stove at the far end, the wooden table and two chairs in the centre, and then a leather sofa and a single, soft chair in front of a schist stone fireplace. A barefoot boy of two or three lay asleep on the sofa, and a woman sat in the big chair with her head back and eyes closed. The boy had nothing on above the waist: his chest was smooth and pale, and there were bracelets of sunburn on his upper arms. The woman wore yellow shorts, a white top, and her long throat was exposed as she rested, or slept. Penny Maine-King.
For a moment Theo stood there, conscious of the sun’s heat on his back, like an iron on the material of his shirt, and aware of the passing intimacy possible with strangers. The boy’s nipples were barely more than smudges on his skin, and the mother’s thighs were smooth, undimpled. On the worn, uneven carpet beside the sofa was a plate with a rim of crusts. So much exact, external detail, so much vulnerability, yet he knew only the public facts of the experience that had brought them to the place and their predicament. It’s what he had become accustomed to in his work: the sudden, close professional focus on people, the establishment of a rapport that enabled the scrutiny of some part of their life, and then the disengagement.
Theo moved so as not to be visible at the window when his knock roused Penny. She came quickly to the door and she seemed not at all drowsy. ‘You found the place okay?’ she shook hands and led him down the passage, just a few paces, and out of a back door directly aligned with the front one. ‘Do you mind sitting out here for a while?’ she said, having already decided the matter by her movement. ‘My boy’s sleeping in the main room. It’s cooler there. The sod walls keep the heat out.’ A wooden form with a back abutted the side of the house by the door, and a kitchen chair stood close to it in the short, dry grass. The shade on that side of the house reached just a few metres up the slope.
‘A good solid seat,’ he said.
‘It’s a pew from the old Anglican church at Dunlathie. The church was sold to make a private house, and my mother bought some of the seats. She took two for the farmhouse veranda and this one ended up here. You can see the edges have polished up from the grease in the wool where the sheep have a good rub against it.’
‘So this is where you come from originally?’ He sat on the old church pew in the gully, and wondered how Penny Maine-King had got all the way to Sacramento and crap television — and back again.
‘My parents farmed not far away, and my father bought this place cheaply for any single worker we had from time to time. It’s my inheritance, you might say.’ The dry tone, and the slightest grimace of a smile, mocked what she said. ‘Anyway, I’ll get you a beer and we can get down to business. No fridge here, I’m afraid.’
‘That’s okay,’ Theo said.
So they sat on the shady side of the old place, still hot enough, she on the kitchen chair, he on the church pew with its weathered surfaces and sheep-oiled leading edges, and she told Theo what she hoped for from him. There was a single, desiccated plum tree on the slope, and a pair of paradise duck, each distinct in the plumage of its gender, flew twice up and down the gully, giving their discordant cries. There was the faintest smell of dry sheep shit, gorse and isolation in the drowsy air. Theo remembered the healthier and larger plum tree behind the garage of the place he’d lived in when married. The mind has a predilection for cross-referencing which takes no account of comfort.
Penny said she had liked his first article, thought it fair, and that she was willing to give him more of the personal story as long as her whereabouts remained secret. What she wanted was sympathetic publicity that would help her lawyer get a stay of the warrant for the return of the child. She needed time to work out something with the boy’s father. ‘I don’t give a stuff what happens to me,’ she said, ‘but Ben’s going to have the start he deserves.’ Theo wasn’t sure how he felt about her. She was completely open about them making use of each other, and though he understood that, there was a hardness in it too. His response to her appearance was ambivalent as well. There was little indication of her breasts beneath the white top: she wore no make-up and her hair was roughly pulled back into a makeshift stub of a pony-tail. Her face had a determinedly scrubbed, plain look. Only her teeth, even and very white, and her smooth legs, hinted at a Californian concern with glamour. She looked him in the eyes as she talked, with that unsmiling, no bullshit expression direct women have.
‘Once the story builds there’ll be all sorts of people out to find you, some waving money,’ Theo told her. ‘And I don’t know about the legal situation. Maybe I can be forced to say where you are. I’ll have to find out all that before I can make any promises.’
‘I can put you in touch with my lawyer,’ said Penny. ‘Anyway, the sympathy should always be with the mother and child, don’t you think?’
‘It’s the law you’ve got to deal with, though. If the sympathy is for mother and child, why didn’t you get a better shake from the American court on custody, instead of just access?’
She sat forward on the kitchen chair in her urgency to explain the deficiencies of the Californian judiciary, her inability any longer to afford lawyers’ fees in the States. There was the slightest sheen of sweat high on her forehead, where her hair was pulled back. She was talking about her husband’s use of his money against her when the boy appeared at the doorway, still dulled with sleep. Giving Theo only a glance, he walked over the dry grass to his mother, and she took him onto her lap. Penny didn’t stop talking, or make any introduction of the boy, but an arm held him, while her other hand moved fondly and absently over him, smoothing his soft hair, running along his bare shoulder and midriff, flexing his sturdy legs. It seemed a reassurance as much for her as for the child, this establishment by contour of the texture and solidity of her son. This familiarity with his physical presence. ‘I’m using my mother’s maiden name here,’ she said. ‘Penny Kayes. People won’t make the connection, and I married overseas, but don’t include any of that in the paper.’
‘You know you can’t hide out for long. These things get too messy.’
‘Christ, you don’t have to tell me that. This has been going on for weeks, here and in California. You think I want to be stuck away in a shack without power and phone? Hello! What I want from you is the right publicity and I’ll give you enough stuff to make a good story.’
‘Fair enough. I’ll do what I can,’ he said.
‘I’m not even so much interested in money, though I need it,’ said Penny. Her son was leaning back on her, wide awake. He looked at Theo steadily, his eyes blue in a face devoid of expression.
‘We don’t pay, but we reach a hell of a lot of people.’
‘Okay then, fair enough,’ said Penny. ‘Do you want something to eat?’
‘No thanks. I better get back to Christchurch asap.’
‘I’ll give you the lawyer’s number, and an email address I can access when I go into Alex. And if you give me your number I can ring you from there if necessary.’
‘Haven’t you got a cellphone?’ asked Theo. ‘Wouldn’t that be simpler?’
‘We’re pretty much out of range up here,’ Penny said.
He went through some of the questions he’d listed for himself, getting stuff about American life, American marriage and American separation. Something, too, about a Kiwi woman coming back to get a fair deal in her own country, and finding herself on the run. Before leaving he walked up the slope to the wooden long-drop, but although Penny and her son were still sitting outside, he didn’t go into the old dunny, just stepped behind it and had a piss into the flattened grass and bare ground where sheep had been resting out of the sun. The ground was so dry that his urine rolled like marbles in the dust. He liked the sense of being in the open, yet with complete privacy. He could see up the slope to a ridgeline that ran back into the steep hills. It reminded him of his boyhood in the hills of North Canterbury, and of going out to the farms with his father, who’d owned stock trucks. Something about quiet land attracted him strongly: something about looking out and seeing natural country with no people there at all. He realised there was vanity in that, an unacknowledged desire for human uniqueness within the landscape.
Afterwards Penny and her son walked from the house to the car with Theo. Penny shook hands for the second time that day, and she said to the little boy, ‘Say goodbye to Theo.’ It was the first time she’d used his name.
‘What’s his name?’ Theo asked. He should have been able to remember: he’d used it in the article and she’d mentioned it earlier in the day.
‘What’s your name?’ she said, using the boy as intermediary again.
‘Ben,’ the child replied.
‘Well, goodbye, Ben,’ Theo said.
He took the Dansey’s Pass route on the way home. It was a gravel road stretch, but if you pushed on you saved time by not going through Palmerston and Oamaru. Once he reached the main coast road, which he knew well, he could drive, and think of other things. The Maine-King story was a good one, especially if Penny remained hidden. Theo needed to understand the legal situation though, not just for accurate coverage, but to protect himself. Penny Maine-King could look after herself well enough, it seemed to him: it was the boy he felt for. Poor little bugger bounced from place to place and parent to parent, and having no comprehension of the reasons for it. When Penny had gone inside to get her email address, she’d left Ben sitting on the kitchen chair. No appropriate small talk occurred to Theo. He had no kids. Ben said nothing, and sat with the dunny and the plum tree on the slope behind him, and tried to pretend he was alone and at ease by lifting his arms up and down and making soft, aeroplane noises. Poor little bugger. Penny Maine-King’s email address was at paradise.net.nz. ‘Yeah, tell me about it,’ she said, and they had parted on that irony.
As Theo drove north he had an image of sex with Penny Maine-King on the church pew. It came without conscious inclination. The irreligious incongruity was the attraction perhaps, rather than her yellow shorts, perfect teeth or the untidy pony-tail. His friend Nicholas held that if a woman succumbs in imagination, it’s a sign of her inclination. The subconscious is open to such vibes, he said. But then, Nicholas was a divorced man like Theo himself, and wistful in matters of the heart, and groin.
- Landmarks, by Grahame Sydney, Brian Turner and Owen Marshall, published by Penguin Random House, November 2020, RRP$75.