Love Like You’re One of the Brontes

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The University Book Shop short story series brings you three stories in which local writers relocate famous fictional characters to Dunedin, and send them on twisted adventures. Today, Maria Ioannou follows Cathy on her search for a halfway decent Tinder date, as she spends  time far from the madding crowd with Gabriel Oak.

PART ONE

The day is a sunny one, the hills green and the corrugated roofs looked stripped, almost Italian. Cathy's mind is still full of Linton but what is the point? It is so long since they were together and she has left Yorkshire's moors and dales, has left all the old mill buildings with their beautiful darkness for this place on the other side of the world. She is here and it is winter there.

This summer has painted her hair its fairest shade and her phone stores a hundred selfies - more - where she knows she looks beautiful. She is expert in how to set the light bouncing along the lines of her heart-shaped jaw. How to have her blue eyes look the colour of the water at Purakaunui inlet on a day like today.

She will go out in the harbour for a paddle before she meets her date, Gabriel Oak. His name is old-fashioned somehow and it is patently clear already he will not be a fit for her. But she has a running commitment to herself currently to Tinder match with any guy who doesn't have a shot of him and a dead animal in his profile pictures. Gabriel Oak's photos are all full of nature. They are kind of an affront in their vibrancy, so fecund and living. Lambs and grass and mud. He will have a name for every one of his sheep, she knows it. What had he said on his profile? "Ready to love always and share my cottage and paddocks with the one.'' Cathy rolls her eyes. In this bright light, with the day stretching ahead of her, what looked vaguely intriguing last night looks more deathly than a day at work.

Cathy is not flaky though. She will meet him later. She hopes his conventional beauty will win out, smother all the other obvious flaws. She has dated guys just like him before if his photos are on the money. He is good-looking like a million other good-looking, healthy and simple men. His hair is wheat before a harvest, his eyes oak tree leaves in summer. His body looks honed by honest work - he does something practical for a job but she hasn't bothered to lodge the information in her mind. It doesn't matter, though maybe she should just have a good few weeks with him. Be adored for a bit.

She wonders when she will stop describing Dunedin, its inhabitants and things, in the metaphors of home. When she will use this this place in her descriptions. She has begun to appreciate the muted colours of New Zealand. How the spring this year was full of blossom the colours of leaves, light greens and whites. The leached tones of the wood abandoned in fields, the tones of the sand and sea and sky in the harshness of the light.

She heads to the farmers' market, her SUP on the roof of her old Toyota, where she downs a cacao hazelnut mylk from Ronia and Pippi and says hey to a hundred people. Half an hour later and she is away, out and in the water, watching the land reflected rippling in time with her paddle. It is so beautiful she wants to lie on her board and watch the sky for decades.

She meets Gabriel at Etrusco. Of course it is there, his choice. Reliable and old-school. God, she wishes he was more complex, more mysterious. She has eaten at the restaurant before with the parents of a friend of hers. They bought her dinner and the conversation was light and friendly. It opened up the bitter void of her having no family to speak of, no mother and no father. She has given up saying anything about her non-standard life to the people here. The robustness of the social fabric around her is like trampoline material, it will not rip or tear, and those like her are necessarily quiet. They do not talk of families full of mess and violence and loss, that they don't have gang Christmas lunches in big, sunshine-filled homes on peninsulas up and down the country where they eat crayfish and pavlovas and lay out on grass with their stomachs full until they are able once more to swim in the sea.

Gabriel is there before her - he pulls out her chair in a smooth movement, tells her she looks beautiful. His voice is soothing. He talks to her in a tone that would work if she were a sick child and he her carer, or if she were a horse that has lost the plot after balking at some unexpected situation.

Five minutes in and Cathy is bored. He is pretty, nice, he is ordering well and talking solidly. She cannot put her phone away. She Tinders while he is in the loo. She arranges to meet a man later. It is Thursday night but she knows she will say goodbye to Gabriel by nine. They continue their dinner and she laughs half-heartedly at his kindly conversational humour. She is so bored.

She thinks of her next date. Othello McAlevey. Today is all about the weird names. He looks deep in his photos. Slightly wild. He has a dark beard, cut neatly, and in one photo, he is wearing a military uniform. He stands very upright in even the most casual of shots.

She tries to hold her focus on the man in front of her. The problem with Gabriel, and frankly there are many, is he has - at this thought Cathy sighs- a very limited education. She has never been able to bear conversation not littered with wit and the entertainment derived from good referencing.

She concedes mentally that his movements have a certain grace. They speak of a life lived outdoors, of clean thoughts and no darkness. He is so pure. She would never be able to tell him what she has experienced, what she thinks when her mind is unfettered, what blackened things she lugs around inside her. She could not talk to him of what her home is for her.

Tonight, she keeps to the other tack. She speaks about cathedrals and the ancient magic of the wild lands she grew up in. She tells him of tarns and tors. In return, he talks of his day to day, of cleaning out the sheds he owns, of cooking meat he catches himself. He is, of course, a hunter. He says he will shoot rabbits tomorrow. At this she laughs and asks why he has not included an image or two in his Tinder profile like all the other men. She jokes he could use the rabbits as a frame, lie inside a brown and grey square and hold his gun like it is a hundred years ago. "It would make the perfect Insta pic,'' she says gamely. He looks at her oddly and tells her he usually goes alone, without a cellphone. A wild man, just him and nature. She knows she should be impressed but instead she has a memory suddenly of walking around the National Gallery in London. There had been a sketch by da Vinci, a massive thing that covered a wall. She had been unable to stop looking at it. Cathy tries to see the hunting like this. Some insight into a world of the other. Beauty in a form she has not yet learnt to see the pull of.

At last, after desserts that are comfortingly like the past, they leave. As they walk down the stairs, Cathy cannot hide her smile of joy. Gabriel looks at her and she can see he almost wants to put a hand to her forehead to check her, like she is a stock animal he has care of, for fever. She giggles at this thought and he takes this as a good sign and asks if he may call her. She says yes to get rid of him because the night is starting to tick away and this Othello guy will be waiting for her in the dark seats of Pequeno. She will never see Gabriel again, except to pass him in the street sometimes and nod awkwardly or pretend not to see him.

He does not try to kiss her. She knows he cannot be bold. He has read about consent. He believes in love more than passion. He is not for her. She touches his arm as she leans in to kiss him on the cheek. He blushes and his pupils are the size of saucers, of plates that will hold country meals for farmers who have worked since 4am. He will be gazing at her photos for a month. He will text her as soon as they part and it will be sweet and proper and utterly unappealing.

Continued tomorrow

Maria Ioannou is a Londoner who now lives in Dunedin. She writes poetry and is working on a novel.

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