Andy and Dad always stopped off at the church before going fishing. Andy looked through the window as they crunched over the gravel, and waved to the man inside.
Pastor Cunningham sold tackle and bait and rods from a room at the side of the church, even on Sunday mornings, and even when it was still dark. He would read the Bible with his feet up. He opened his shop half an hour before dawn — even on Christmas and at Easter — according to sunrise times listed in the Kaipara Harbour Fisherman’s Handbook, which he put together himself each summer using the photocopier in the Church office.
The shop smelled of bait and ice and oil, and that black tea the pastor drank. There were always strange shadows on the wall made by the rods standing at different angles in the window. Pictures and maps of the Kaipara harbour were pinned to hessian boards. The room seemed crowded and full and was always warm, even in the black winter mornings.
“Nice morning,” said the Pastor.
“She is,” said Dad.
Andy had seen pictures of priests and church-men, on TV and in books: Pastor Cunningham looked like none of them. He looked pretty much like Dad, hairy and tall and brown from the sun, with a pot belly where he would sometimes rest his hand, or his tea, or his glass of beer. He dressed in shorts and a brushed cotton shirt, red or blue usually but with other colours running through it, except on Sundays when he wore his brown corduroy trousers and a shirt and tie.
Cunningham was his first name, and his last name was Thomas. Cunningham Thomas. Andy had first thought he must have had them backwards, but no, Mum said that was the way it was. Backwards was forwards.
Mum had grown up with Pastor Cunningham, and so had Dad. They’d all been kids together. Some people, like the big kids at Andy’s school and some of the grown-ups, called Pastor Cunningham a different name. They called him Sly Bacon. Mum didn’t — Mum called him Cunningham — but Dad did. Actually, most often Dad just called him Bacon, and he didn’t seem to mind.
Pastor Cunningham pulled a bag of bait from the chest freezer and handed it to Dad. The bag had frozen into a strange shape, like a squashed sausage. Dad pulled out a two-dollar note from his pocket. The pastor raised his hand.
“I’ll take a smoked Kahawai, next time you come by,” he said.
“You’ve always been a gentleman,” said Dad.
They walked back to the car. The sky was beginning to glow.
“How far we going today, Dad?”
“Just out past the point.”
“Can I do the rowing?” Andy asked.
“I was counting on it.”
The house sat on the ridge that ran parallel with the highway. From the kitchen window you could see the harbour, out to the Tasman sea. Andy always imagined that, if only the weather were clear enough, he might see all the way to Australia.
The driveway was sharp grey gravel, and it ran up to the house along the left side of the property. There were the three acres of the front paddock where the garlic would grow — a side-line, an opportunity. It was about twenty acres, the farm, mostly pasture but there was about half an acre up the back, behind the house and on the south side of a hill, where macrocarpa and manuka leaned in the westerly. Scattered across the farm were patches of gorse. Dad would spray it with poison, say, “That’ll fix the bastard,” then go back a couple of months later and say, “The bloody bastard.”
“You plant on the shortest day and you harvest on the longest,” said Dad, over Sunday roast, when he broke the news about the garlic.
“But, garlic?” Mum asked.
“This is the eighties. People cook with garlic now. Increasing demand.” Dad pointed his knife to the ceiling and a drip of gravy glugged onto his cuff.
“How are we going to plant three acres?”
“We’ll get the family around. Make an occasion. You kids will help,” Dad said. Penny and Carol and Bronnie looked at each other.
Andy’s sisters were next to useless. When Dad had built the fence around the house last summer, and it needed painting and everyone had to go out and pitch in, they’d only stuck at it for ten minutes. Andy had worked all day and got blisters on two of his fingers and one in the middle of his palm. Dad popped his blisters with the bathroom scissors and told him to put his hand in warm water mixed with Dettol. It’d stung.
Andy spent a lot of time in his hut. It was a way to get some distance between him and his sisters. Penny said she didn’t give a rats about the hut because she had better things to do. Those things were to sit with Carol and Bronnie and plait their hair and put on make-up and take it off again then put it back in Mum’s drawer before she found out, and then whine to Mum to take them to the Four Square.
Andy’s hut was made from an old wooden crate. Dad had towed it up to the back paddock behind his tractor. The crate had been used for packing and hauling onions that Mum and Dad had grown a couple of years back in the front paddock — the paddock that was going to be used for garlic. The hut smelled like onions still, especially when it rained. Andy didn’t notice it anymore.
The crate the hut had been built from was made of rough planks, and the planks had gaps between them, wide enough for fingers but too narrow for arms. The bottom of the crate, which was upright, was also the control panel and windscreen or whatever Andy needed for his mission. Sometimes the hut was an airplane and sometimes it was a helicopter and other times, but less often, it was a submarine. Also there were missions when it would be a time machine. Sometimes it was just a hut.
Andy sat down at the controls. He took a look around and counted the spiders. There were mainly black ones, some the size of his thumbnail, and daddy long legs.
Depending on the mission, the spiders could be his crew. There was a hairy black spider with a round body that lived beside the autopilot button. He had a web like a white cotton sheet. He was Andy’s co-pilot and navigator. The daddy long legs were passengers mostly, civilians. Andy’s missions always involved the protection of passengers and preventing civilian casualties.
Andy pressed the ignition button. He had to destroy an enemy base that was being used to store uranium, and to rescue the hostages. The enemy base looked like Penny’s bedroom. The hostages looked like Savannah.
Savannah was in his class, and was Michael’s twin sister. Savannah had long blonde hair and a fringe cut just above her eyes and wore dresses with flowers on them. She smelled like hot cross buns and laundry soap and dry tree bark after it crumbles in your hands.
It was Sunday. Andy was walking back from his hut. It was quite far from the house — maybe five minutes’ walk over hilly ground, picking his way through the paddocks and looking out for cowpats. The pasture was lush, almost like it was in spring. The grass had gone that green it goes after rain and sun and when the cattle haven’t seen it for a while. Not the yellowy-green of the kikuyu on the lawn, with the pale green circles made by the cut of the lawnmower. Sometimes the pasture was so green it was more like blue, like a shadow of the sky.
He swished through the pasture, and the dew made his jeans wet up to his knees. He snapped off a blade of grass as he walked, easily as wide as his finger, and when he rested it on his forearm it folded over on itself and made a triangle, like a pup tent. The blade of grass could be rolled into a tube and used as a pea shooter.
He climbed over a fence and across Apricot’s paddock. Apricot looked at him, as she always did, with her dumb eyes and big round belly almost touching the ground. How did Bronnie get Apricot to jump over anything, with that stomach? Bronnie had trained her to eat peppermints, and Apricot would sniff at your pockets searching for Oddfellows if you got too close.
“You won’t be able to go up there next Sunday,” said Penny, when Andy walked in the door.
“Can so if I want.”
“Nuh-uh.” She walked off down the hall, turned and said, “You’re such a baby.” Andy went into the kitchen.
“Penny’s a pain.” He went to leave. He was going to go to his room and hook up a torch to the doorknob so it would shine in the eyes of whoever turned it.
“Before you go,” said Mum.
“Next Sunday, you’re starting Sunday School.”
“Not what. Pardon.”
“Pardon? What — why?”
“Because your father and I want you to,” she said. School on Sunday? Come on.
“Do the girls have to go?”
“They’ve already been.”
“Do I have to?” he asked, and Mum didn’t answer. She looked at the potato she was peeling, as big as a leather boot.
“What’s it like?” Andy asked.
She said, “That’s why you go, to find out.” And Andy knew that he had to go, because Mum had trapped him. She did that sometimes. She trapped him like that because she was older than him.
Sunday school wasn’t held in the main church, but in a room that leaned against the wall of the church, like a small classroom, on the opposite side to the fishing shop. It had murals on the walls, a leather chair at the front, and a patchwork mat in the middle of the floor. There were fourteen kids in the class. There was Michael and Savannah, and Charlene and Aaron, who had just started going round together, and some other kids from school, mostly younger than him. At the front, next to the leather chair, was a boy he didn’t recognise.
The sun poked in through one of the coloured windows, and it lit up the dust that floated from the chair when Pastor Cunningham sat down. Carol still called that stuff fairy dust. The chair was covered in leather that was split and cracked. Mum would have shaken her head. There were two shiny patches on the armrests where the leather had been rubbed smooth, and Pastor Cunningham placed his elbows on those spots and brought his hands and fingers together like people do on Mastermind. Savannah was sitting right in front of the Pastor, and from where Andy was sitting, off to the side, he could see sparkly golden hairs on her legs catching the sunshine.
“Good morning,” Pastor Cunningham said, and then looked like he’d forgotten something. He pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, and read aloud.
He talked about what it was like to have faith, and how peaceful it was. He said if you were ever in trouble then you could go to church, and he would listen and help if he could. Andy thought about fishing. Last year, Pastor Cunningham had won the competition at the Club. He knew all the best spots, and could also tell when the best spots shifted. He was tinny like that.
Pastor Cunningham pointed at a mural on the wall and said, “Who can tell me who that is?” The men in the painting were wearing white robes. The women were wearing dresses made from the sort of material the onions were shipped in. There was a picture of a horse too, fat like Apricot. Perhaps it was a donkey. The man he was pointing at had long hair and a beard and dark eyes. Andy figured it was Jesus, but didn’t say anything. What if he was wrong? Savannah put up her hand.
“Yes?” said Pastor Cunningham.
“God?” she said.
“Yes, but also no,” Pastor Cunningham said, and then looked like he wished he hadn’t, like he was worried he’d upset Savannah. Savannah stared at her knees. Andy looked at his own knees so he wouldn’t catch Pastor Cunningham’s eye. How could the guy be both God but also not God? The new kid raised his hand.
“That’s Jesus. Jesus is God’s son, but God and Jesus are one, like with the Holy Ghost, and when Jesus died he went back to God. That lady there” — he pointed to a woman in the mural wearing a greyish-blue sack dress — “is Jesus’ mother, Mary, but she wasn’t his real mother because of the immaculate conception.” The boy said it with capital letters: Immaculate Conception.
The new kid had wavy blond hair and wide blue eyes. Dark blue, like denim straight from the shop. He had a good tan, like Savannah’s — and in fact he did look a bit like a boy and a girl all at the same time. When he talked his mouth got wet and shiny. He was bigger than Andy.
“Wow, okay, great! Well done. Now, you are new to town, so would you like to say hello to everyone?”
The new kid turned and faced the class. He looked at Andy when he said, “Hi, I’m Jason.”
Andy hung around with Michael and Savannah while they waited for their mums to come and pick them up. Jason was waiting around too. Michael and Savannah’s mum arrived first. Michael waved when he got into the car and said, “See you at school.” Andy sat on the curb and made shapes in the gravel with the outside edge of his shoe.
Mum arrived at about the same time as a blue Ford pulled into the carpark. The Ford was big and had scratches down one side, and the wing mirror rattled as the car drove over the broken asphalt. Mum’s car and the Ford parked side by side. A woman got out and Jason started walking towards her. She was dressed up. She wore a skirt that went down to her knees and got tight, so she had to take small steps, and her shoes had heels that were tricky on the stones. Her blouse was made of some sort of material that shone, deep purple, like blackberry juice left on your fingertips. She was pretty, in the way other kids’ mums sometimes were, especially when they noticed you and smiled.
The two mums started talking before either Jason or Andy had made their way over. Mum made a hand signal that meant hang on, so Andy waited by the curb, near Jason. Andy said to him, “Is that your mum?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“You new to town?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Nothing, I s’pose,” he said, and sat on the curb.
After a couple of minutes Pastor Cunningham came over. He shook the other woman’s hand and after that he did most of the talking. Andy sat down on the verge and picked grass out of the ground and threw it in the air. The wind changed directions quite a few times while he was sitting there. It never just blows from one place like they say it will.
Jason walked to a patch of gravel, picked up a handful of stones, and began throwing them at the sparrows that hung around. He didn’t hit any. Then he threw a handful of stones, all at once, hard, and the birds scattered.
“Jason’s mum’s name is Lorraine,” said Mum. They were driving home.
“What about his dad?” Andy asked.
“His dad lives up north. Jason goes to stay with him every other weekend.”
“He’ll be starting school, in your class, tomorrow. Look out for him okay because he doesn’t have any friends yet.”
“Okay,” Andy said. Mum was always trying to get him to make more friends.
“They’re coming over for afternoon tea,” she said.
“Lorraine and Jason.”
“What time?” He’d been planning to go to his hut to invade Mururoa Atoll.
“About two,” she said.
“Okay.” He’d go on his mission when Jason was gone.
Andy was sitting out the front of the house when the blue Ford turned into the driveway. He’d been sanding off a piece of timber to use in his hut. He was making it very smooth and he liked the way it felt against his fingertips. There was yellow sawdust, as fine as powder, on the gravel at his feet.
Mum stood beside Andy and waved as Lorraine and Jason got out. Jason smiled and said, “Hello, Mrs Stevens” to Mum. She liked that sort of thing. She’d told Andy always to be polite with other kids’ parents and to talk to them like they were normal people. Mum smiled a toothy smile and said, “Well hello to you too, Jason. My goodness look at your lovely hair — Lorraine, what a cherub! But so tall.” Mum looked at Jason’s eyes, then looked away.
In Andy’s room, the first thing Jason did was go over to Andy’s trophy shelf. He had a cup for being the most improved back in his under-ten rugby team, a trophy for sportsmanship from his softball coach, a ribbon for coming sixth in the cross-country at school, and a top-heavy, ungainly trophy for winning the confidence course at Cubs’ camp last year. Jason picked up the Cubs trophy and said, “This is pretty big,” and started throwing it up and down. He only barely threw it to start with, more like he was testing its weight. But he kept on throwing it, getting higher and higher. If he kept on going, the trophy might hit the ceiling or, worse, he would drop it. He was only using one hand.
“Careful with throwing it,” Andy said. Jason looked at him. He kept on throwing, without watching properly, his mouth open wide like he was doing a stunt. Andy tried to take it from him but Jason turned his back, and Andy couldn’t reach around. Jason’s back was wide.
“It’s big,” Jason said again, as he stopped throwing it. He put the trophy back on the shelf. It was wonky, so Andy straightened it up.
Andy took Jason out the back of the house to show him the vege garden. He wasn’t interested, and Andy found himself standing alone in the vege patch looking at his broccoli. Jason was over by Penny’s window, his faced pressed up against the glass.
“How many sisters you got?” Jason’s voice was muffled from being so close to the window.
Jason nodded by tapping his forehead on the window. When he pulled away there was a patch of mist left on the window that dissolved, and a forehead smudge that stayed. Andy wiped it off with the cuff of his sleeve.
Around at the front, they ran into Mum and Lorraine, who were looking at the garden bed where Mum was going to plant her roses that spring. Mum said she wouldn’t plant until the garlic bulbs arrived, because garlic helped roses grow. Andy squinted at the patch of earth, working the idea of that strange pairing into his head. Jason was cleaning the fingernails of his left hand with the fingernails of his right hand.
“Andy, why don’t you show Jason your hut?” Mum said.
“Oh, I think Jason would love that!” said Lorraine. Andy felt something slide in his stomach.
“But it’s way up the back, ages away,” Andy said, pointing way up the hill to a spot beyond the hut.
“Oh come on, Andy. It’s not that far,” Mum said.
“Jason loves the outdoors,” Lorraine said, and smiled like she had in the church carpark.
“Do you want to?” Andy asked Jason.
“Come on, let’s go,” he said.
“Ta da.” Andy said, as they clambered into his hut. Jason scrunched up his nose.
“What’s that smell?”
“What smell?” said Andy.
“Oh. Onions. There used to be onions in here.”
“Yeah. I don’t mind it.” Jason looked around.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Ten,” said Andy.
“I’ll be eleven in December,” said Andy, and then, “But you’re going to be in my class at school? Even though you’re older?
Jason shrugged. “Who knows how those bloody moron teachers work things out.” Andy looked away and sat down on the crate in front of the control panel. He stared at the wall of his hut, counting the lines in the grain of a plank of timber.
“How old are your sisters?” Jason asked.
“Older than me.” Andy thought about Penny and Bronnie and Carol, and wondered where they were right then.
“Have you seen this before?”
“What?” Andy said.
“This.” Jason grabbed Andy’s wrist and twisted the skin.
“Don’t!” Andy tried to pull his arm away, and Jason let it go after a couple of seconds.
“That’s called an Indian burn,” he said. Andy knew about them. Dad had given them to him before, but different. Dad didn’t twist so hard, and made more of a tickling sting. Dad called them Chinese burns. Andy put his hand on his forearm. The skin was pink and hot.
“What’s all this?” Jason said, pointing to the dials and buttons Andy had attached to the walls. “What do you do in here?” he asked.
“Stuff,” Andy said.
“There are spiders all over,” he said, looking into the corners and between the planks of timber on the walls.
“Yeah,” Andy said. Jason made a fist with his thumb sticking out, and with the flat part of his thumb he went around and squashed all the spiders. The big ones squirted out thick yellow liquid, like pus. When he was done, Jason looked at his thumb. It was shiny and wet, and there were hair-thin legs glued to the skin. Andy felt heat burn again in his arm, and he felt sweaty even though it was cold, like he did at half-time during a rugby match.
“Fixed,” Jason said, and again asked, “How old are your sisters?”
Andy looked at the spider guts and those skinny legs hanging off Jason’s thumb. “Penny is fourteen, Bronnie is twelve and Carol is eleven.” Jason nodded.
Mum called up to them — the hut was just close enough to hear a voice if the wind was right and the person yelled, but not close enough that you could hear what was shouted. They left the hut and walked out of the trees. Apricot had stopped eating and looked up the hill at them, like they were trespassing. When the mums called again, Apricot looked down towards the house. The boys walked on, with Andy lagging behind Jason.
Lorraine said goodbye to Mum, and Jason got into the car and wound the window down and said, “See you at school tomorrow.”
Once they had gone, Mum said to Andy, “Did Jason like your hut?”
“What do you mean?”
“He didn’t like the spiders. Or the smell.”
Mum put her hand on his head and stroked the hair over his ear. “Don’t forget to look out for him at school tomorrow,” she said.
That week at school Andy kept out of the way. He didn’t talk to Jason until Friday.
Friday was current events day. There was a roster and each kid had to present at least once a year, and some of them twice, if they were unlucky enough to have a surname at the start of the alphabet. They would bring along an article from the newspaper, and make a speech about it and why it was important. When it was Andy’s turn he’d brought along an article about John Walker. He was so fast. The article said he had a big heart that pumped really slowly, which didn’t seem right.
Jason had to do current events that Friday. He brought along a cut-out about the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and talked about the sort of bombs they used, and what might happen to the man and woman who had blown up the boat, and how the French exploded their nuclear bombs, and how many bombs’-worth of regular bombs were inside each nuclear bomb.
“What do you think about what happened with the Rainbow Warrior, Jason?” asked the teacher.
“They set the bombs to go off ten minutes apart,” he said.
“Yes that’s right. Why?” said the teacher.
“So they could sink it.”
“Yes, but also for other reasons,” said the teacher.
“They lied about being married so they could get into the country,” said Jason.
“Right. Okay, does anyone know the word we use when the lying is so bad that it’s against the law?” Charlene raised her hand.
“Fraud?” she said. Charlene’s dad was a lawyer. When Mum and Dad bought their farm, Charlene’s dad helped with the paperwork. Dad had paid him by giving him three dead steers for his freezer. Dad quite often paid people like that. He said it worked out better value for everyone because the taxman didn’t need to be involved. It was as if the taxman was real, like he wore a flash suit and lived in a big house, probably in Whangarei, paid for by other people’s money.
“Excellent!” said the teacher. Fraud. Andy tried to think of how it would be spelt but he couldn’t make it look right in his head.
“Is it fraud when you say you won’t tell, like when you say you will neither confirm nor deny, like the Americans and their battleships?” asked Charlene.
“Not exactly. But it’s not honest either.”
Jason started talking again. “They used Limpit bombs,” he said. “Two of them, one on either side of the hull. Boom-boom.”
At lunchtime, some kids started up a game of hockey on the field, so Michael and Andy went along and played. Lunchtime was nearly up when Jason walked over. He walked to where the ball was, where the kids had all been hacking away trying to get a good hit on it. He yelled at everyone to stop, so they all stopped and stood around and wondered what was happening. Jason grabbed a stick off one of the kids and spread his arms out, which meant that everyone needed to get out of the way, and started dribbling the ball towards the goal. All the kids stood and watched. Except Michael.
Michael got in front of Jason and tried to get the ball off him, properly, like in the rules of the game. Jason pushed Michael in the chest and Michael stumbled. When he stood up again Jason punched him. The punch hit Michael on his mouth and his jaw rattled, a sound like when two knucklebones clunk together. Michael fell to his knees like someone had whacked the back of his legs. He breathed hard and said, “What’d you do that for?” Jason went back to dribbling the ball towards the goal.
Andy felt something surge, and his legs began to tingle. He ran over and whacked the ball away from Jason just as he was about to hit it into the goal. Andy kept running. When he looked over his shoulder, expecting to see Jason chasing him, he wasn’t. He was still where he had been, in front of the goal, but was whirling his stick around, and he started screaming. He hadn’t heard screaming like that before — it wasn’t words — not any that could be made out. It sounded like Jason was hurting, like someone was tearing at his hair. All the kids watched but didn’t say anything. He kept on screaming, threw the stick on the ground and walked off towards the classroom block.
In class that afternoon, Jason sat at his desk and didn’t do anything and didn’t look anywhere except at the top of his desk and his feet. Before the end of the day a messenger came. The teacher took Jason out of class. When she came back, he wasn’t with her.
It was two Sundays later.
“Does anyone know the Ten Commandments?” asked Pastor Cunningham. Jason put his hand up. He listed all ten of them, as if speaking a nursery rhyme. Jason listed commandments about oxen and labouring and what sorts of things you can witness and things about other gods coming before, one about gravestones, and there was one about not bowing down to others.
“Excellent, Jason,” said Pastor Cunningham. He reached across into a desk drawer and pulled out a Crunchie Bar. “That was very impressive,” he said. Jason ate the chocolate right then and there, and every kid in the room watched.
Andy’s skin felt like it did when the wind picked up out on the harbour, or when he’d taken too long on a mission and he’d had to scurry back in the darkening evening or in the beginnings of a squall. Was God on Jason’s side? Could God be on certain people’s sides and not others? And how could you go about getting on his side, and what did it mean if you didn’t make the team?
The smell of salt water was strong in the air as Andy walked across the field to the carpark. He felt the cold of the ocean just as strongly as when he leaned over the rail of the dinghy and dragged his fingers in the water.
“Got any money?”
Andy jumped. “Eh?”
Jason looked at him with wide eyes and said really slowly, “Got. Any. Money?”
“No,” Andy lied. He had forty cents in his pocket, and each coin felt as big as a dinner plate. It was enough to buy a packet of Rashuns and thirteen one-cent lollies from the Four Square after school the next day.
“Are you lying?”
“No.” Another lie. Andy thought about God standing right there looking over his shoulder. That was it, it was all over. If he wasn’t on God’s side before, there was no way he was going to get picked now. He should have said that he could neither confirm nor deny.
“Okay. Because if you were lying then I would have to smash your face in. It’s in the Bible. Thou shalt not bear false witness, and if you do, you’ll get your face smashed in.” Jason stopped walking. “Get away from me, homo,” he said, and Andy ran to the carpark.
Andy was looking at the highway when he felt the stone hit him just above the ear. It hurt like a bee sting, and when Andy touched the spot then looked at his finger, there was a dab of blood, bright red, like a raspberry lolly.
The church itself was an old weatherboard building, draughty but solid. It was historically important, so no-one was allowed to change it, which meant the pastor had to live in a flat out the back. The flat was a square house propped up on posts, like the prefab classrooms at school, which always made it look like it had just arrived, or was just about to be taken away on a truck. But Pastor Cunningham had lived there all Andy’s life. When he’d been small and Mum had visited Pastor Cunningham, Andy would crawl under the flat. Lying on his back watching the spiders, he could see light peeking through the floorboards and hear them talking as clearly as if he were in the room. He’d started going under there again.
Pastor Cunningham’s boots scratched across the stones of the courtyard. The sole was coming away on one of them, and it flapped lightly each time the foot lifted from the ground. The boots stopped not far from where Andy was lying, where he’d been watching a trail of ants scamper along the dusty underside of a floorboard.
“Are you okay Andy?”
“Waiting for Mum.”
“You missed the last half hour of class.”
“I had to go to the toilet.” The boots shifted slightly. Pastor Cunningham knelt down, bent his back, and looked at him with a sideways face.
“It’s cold. I’m going to make a cup of tea. Do you want to come inside while you wait?”
“No thank you. I think I hear Mum’s car.”
“Okay. I’ll just be inside.” Pastor Cunningham walked away and into his house, his feet falling heavily on the floor above Andy’s head. He came back out and left a red and black Swandri folded neatly on the stones.
Andy crawled through to the far side of the flat and took a wide arc around to the carpark. He tried not to think of the lies he’d told the pastor, on church ground, like others he’d had to tell recently, the ones that cut into him sometimes when he was trying to fall asleep.
Jason sometimes didn’t come to school. When Jason was away, no-one asked about it. One time Jason didn’t come to school for a whole week and none of the kids said anything, not even a word. It was that week that Andy and his family planted the garlic.
One day the paddock was just a paddock, and the next day it was brown dirt, striped with the rows Dad had ploughed. When Andy stood in a trench, the ridges on either side came up to the hem of his stubbies. When he stood on a ridge, he felt like he did when he stood in the bow of the dinghy out in the harbour, balancing while Dad rowed towards the horizon.
Andy and Mum and Dad and Carol and Bronnie and even Penny, and some of Andy’s cousins and his Uncle Bruce and Auntie Pauline, all buried garlic bulbs lovingly in the ground. It was winter but the sun shone. Dad was out there all day every day for a week, and the rest of them worked each afternoon after work or school. By midday Saturday, it was done. Andy marked with twigs the rows he’d planted.
After they had finished and cleared the gear out of the paddock, the view from the house was almost the same as it had been before they had started planting. But under the soil, the bulbs were starting to fidget, to feel the tickling heat of the winter sun trapped by the dark soil, to drink the water that came from the sky like one of Pastor Cunningham’s miracles. He tried to picture summer, and imagined the garlic growing as tall as him. It wouldn’t, of course — it would look like the onions had a few years earlier, but still, he thought of walking into the field, building a makeshift hut somewhere near the middle, and taking a garlicky sort of shelter from the heat.
Dad and Uncle Bruce got drunk sitting on apple boxes on the driveway. They lit a fire in the bottom of a steel drum and everyone sat around it to keep warm. Mum and Auntie Pauline drank wine from plastic cups and sat on fold-out chairs. They had a box of wine between their two chairs and they would top up their cups from those little taps that appeared like magic from the sides of those boxes.
The sun started to go down, and Dad and Uncle Bruce had got through most of one crate. Dad leaned back and said, “My whole life smells like garlic,” and laughed hard. Uncle Bruce pushed his hand towards Dad and said, “Smell my finger.”
Andy’s cousin Terry, who was fifteen and could drive, went to the fish and chip shop and brought back more bundles than Andy had ever seen for one meal. Penny and Bronnie and Carol had disappeared inside earlier with Terry’s sisters, but came back out for the feast. Andy was really hungry. He ate two whole pieces of fish and two chip sandwiches with sauce. Dad let him have some of his beer and it tasted good but bitter with the vinegar and salt still on his tongue.
Between Dad and Uncle Bruce they drank twenty brown bottles of beer from the crates. Andy collected them as they drank them, and he was the one who got them fresh bottles from the fridge when they were out. At the beginning Dad would let Andy pour his beer, carefully down the side of his glass, but later on he just drank straight from the bottles.
Andy went to bed at midnight. As he lay in bed, he could still smell the garlic on his hands. He’d tried to wash it off earlier, before they ate, but it had just mixed with the smell of the soap, then with the smell of the fish and chips and vinegar. He brought a hand to his face and breathed in slowly, through his nose, and thought of the papery skin and the white shoots pushing towards the sky.
Just as Andy started to fall asleep, he heard music and went to his window. Mum and Dad were dancing together on the driveway. He’d never seen them dance at all before, and didn’t even know they could dance. But they could.
Andy watched for a while. Dad danced with Auntie Pauline, but she didn’t really know how to dance properly and got dizzy, and before the song had finished she ran and bent over the fence. Andy closed the curtains and walked to the front door, his dressing gown wrapped tight around him.
Dad saw him, and came over and gave him a hug. He smelled of smoke from his cigarettes and from the fire, and beer and sweat, and garlic and vinegar. Dad lifted Andy off the ground and danced with him for a while, and he got dizzy like Auntie Pauline. Dad went to the garage and brought out some fireworks, and he let Andy light some before he went back to bed. There were skyrockets and tom thumbs and double happies, and those ones that just go boom once but really loud. He dreamed of sparklers writing his name in the sky by themselves and furry stars floating in and out between grey night-time clouds.
When Andy woke the next morning, the girls were up but Mum and Dad were still in bed. They were going to be feeling no good after the night before. Andy ignored his sisters, made his breakfast, and headed up to his hut.
Andy was checking the spiders when he heard the snap-swish of sticks breaking and feet moving through pine needles. Mum or Dad, or Terry? Terry had slept in the garage on one of those thin foam mattresses.
Andy saw golden hair through the gaps in the boards.
Jason stopped five steps from the hut. It was like watching an animal on Our World, maybe a hyena, sitting under a tree, flicking away the flies and grooming its coat. From inside the hut, Jason didn’t look that big or mean. He didn’t look anything really, apart from busy, like he had a job to do.
Jason was wearing a backpack. It was black and green and had brownish circular stains on it. The nylon was fraying on the straps. Jason took the backpack off and placed it on a pile of pine needles under a tree. He rummaged around, then looked up. He must have got that feeling that you get when someone is watching you even though you can’t see them. Like when you’re in your room and then you get a shiver and you look around and the cat is staring right at you.
Jason looked straight through the gaps in the planks at Andy’s eyes. At first Jason’s head jerked and he looked around behind him, quickly, and reached back down to his backpack’s straps. But then he smiled.
“What are you doing, Andy?”
“No,” Andy replied, and then, “I’m just waiting for Dad, we’re going to have a look at the garlic.” Jason came right up to the hut, pressed his nose against the rough planks and said, “Lying. You know what that means, don’t you?”
“No, it doesn’t mean that.”
Jason pulled his backpack closer to the hut, then left it on the ground and came around the back of the crate. As soon as he was in, he pushed Andy in the chest and he thumped against the wall and his head banged against the timber. The crate tipped slightly and Jason grabbed the side of the hut. “Oi, Andy, be careful. Are you spastic or something?” Andy put his hand up to rub the back of his head. There was a lump and a throb under his fingers. Jason looked around and said, “You’ve got those spiders back again.” Andy didn’t say anything. His throat had closed and his head stung — he pressed two fingers against the lump and he wondered if he could feel something wet.
Jason walked back out of the hut but didn’t leave. He went around to his backpack and stood there looking at Andy through the cracks in the crate. “I want to show you something.”
“You haven’t been at school.”
“I’ve been with my old man. Up north. We went pig hunting for a few days. It’s ace. During the day the dogs chased the pigs, and me and Dad crashed through the bush and down hills and along creeks. At night we made a fire and dad drank Southern Comfort. You tried that, Andy?” He shook his head again. “It burns, but it’s good.” Jason stopped talking about the hunting, and said, “Wait. Do not move.” He walked a few metres towards a pile of horse dung, picked up a plank, and scooped up some dung. He brought the dung back over and dumped it in front of the hut. “Come out here and sit down,” he said.
Andy made a grunting sound, and Jason said, “Sit down, right there, on that.” The horse dung was black but striped with brown where it had cracked and the air had got to it. It looked to have the texture of bread. Andy looked back at him again. “Sit on that.”
Andy came out of the hut and sat on the dung. Jason kept talking.
“We took four of dad’s dogs on the back of the ute,” he said. “We killed and ate the pigs.”
“Uh,” Andy said — hardly a noise at all. He was sitting down, which made it hard to get up and run. And even though he got sixth in the cross country, could he outrun Jason? Probably not. He would catch him by the time he got to Apricot’s paddock, where he would have to stop to climb the fence. The idea of having his back to Jason while Jason grabbed him and dragged him to the ground made his eyes sting.
“On the last day, he let me finish off one of the pigs.” Jason stopped talking then, and looked at Andy, to make sure he’d understood what he’d said. “You should have seen it. My old man had the pig between his legs, like this”—he put the backpack between his knees to show how his dad had kept the pig still—“and then he ripped the knife through its throat, and you could hear it tear, and the blood just spurted everywhere. You have to make sure the dogs are locked up when you do it though, or they’d eat you. The pig was dead by the time the old man let me cut at its throat, but, man.”
“Uh.” Andy’s mouth went dry. Pig blood spurting everywhere, a red spray like water from a hose turned on suddenly, the hair and skin and blood all mixed together on the ground, the dogs biting into the pig’s bones, perhaps before it had properly died.
“My old man let me keep the knife,” he said. He pulled the backpack from between his knees and started unzipping it. As he reached into it, he said, “Here’s what I wanted to show you.” He pulled out a can of spray paint.
“Yeah. Stay there,” he said, pointing at the pile of dung, and he walked up to the hut. He took the cap off the can and started spraying the side of the hut. The paint was a fluorescent pink, the same colour that Dad used to mark out fence lines or the places to dig post holes. It took maybe thirty seconds, and when he’d finished he stood back. He’d written a word in capital letters. Andy knew that word, but had never said it, and hadn’t thought about how it would look when it was written. He tried to say it in his head, but it felt painful and he pushed it away. “That’s better,” Jason said. He went to write something else and Andy got up and yelled out, “Don’t!”
It was the first time he’d been hit properly by someone who was meaning to hurt him.
It was the first time he’d been hit properly by someone who was meaning to hurt him. It wasn’t like he thought it would be. He had thought he would see the punch coming and be able to do something about it. He’d seen fights on movies and on The Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider, so he thought he knew how it went. But this, it was just like he got up off his feet and then he was back down again, on the ground, but on his side and tilted rather than sitting. His cheek and ear were burning, and he was dizzy so it was hard to feel how he might stand up again. His eyes were watering and he couldn’t make them stop. He tried to look at Jason but his vision was hazy, and then he couldn’t see anything at all because Jason was on top of him, with his knee in his chest, feeling like it was going to go right through and come out his back. He couldn’t breathe.
There was a noise, a loud hiss, and the spray paint hit his face, coating his left eye and cheek, dripping and smearing down his neck and onto his clothes. The smell was like the burn of petrol when you got too close. Maybe he’d die — the knee on his chest was so heavy, no air, his face and eye burning. Jason was breathing loudly, talking — shouting — but the words were lost in the trees.
“Get off him!” Another voice. The paint stopped hissing, but the knee remained. Andy managed to squint out of one eye and saw Penny and Carol.
“Just get off him!” Penny screamed. There was a release of pressure as Jason did as she said, but still sharp pain in his chest. Andy tried to stand but it was no good, he couldn’t even sit—he couldn’t get his breath, and he could taste blood and paint in his mouth and his eyes were still watering.
“I know you,” he said. “You’re Heath’s girlfriend.” He walked towards her. “He said you’re a real good girl.”
“What?” said Penny. Her voice was high and loud.
“He says you’re a good little girlfriend and you do whatever he wants.” Then he said, “Slut.”
“You shut your face!” she screamed, and threw her arm at him as if it held a rock, but then took a step backwards. Penny was older, but Jason was bigger. Carol, standing beside Penny, had never looked smaller.
“Or what?” Jason bent down and reached to his backpack. He pulled out something that looked like a boomerang until he took hold of it in his left hand and pulled the end with his right. It turned into a wooden handle and a grey steel blade. The blade had teeth along one edge and was as long as Andy’s forearm. Jason held it up, like a trophy, and turned it over in his hand so Penny could see it from every angle. Andy sank further into the earth.
Jason walked over to Carol. She didn’t move except for her eyes, which were big. “Hello little Andy’s tiny sister,” he said, and gently tipped her glasses off her face. They fell to the ground and he stood on them, snapping them, before he ground them with his foot like Dad putting out a cigarette. Carol sat down and crossed her legs. Jason walked over to Penny and lifted her hair with the point of his knife. He whispered something in her ear.
There was a crunching sound, someone running through the trees, and a yell—a familiar voice, unusually loud. Bronnie. She picked up a piece of four-by-two lying beside the hut. Jason turned and stepped back, and Bronnie hit him in the head, swinging the timber like a softball bat. Jason let out a breathy grunt and snapped to the ground at Penny’s feet. The piece of wood went with him as he fell, still attached to the side of his head.
Bronnie pulled Andy up so he could sit. She was talking, but Andy heard only noises, like words spoken underwater. He looked over to Jason. The shining heads of two nails were sticking out from the length of four-by-two, the points buried somewhere in Jason’s skull. When Bronnie had hit him, they must have gone all the way into his brain.
But then, as Andy was staring at Jason’s head, Jason sat up. It must take a while to die like that, for the brain to leak out. Jason put his hand up to his head and pulled gently at the wood. It didn’t come away, and he had to tug again, harder, to prise it from his head. Jason looked at the four-by-two. The points of the nails were red, like chips dipped in sauce. Jason touched his head, and when he pulled his hand away it was lathered with blood that dripped down his arm. Jason said, to none of them in particular, “Look—what?” and he stared at the nails and the blood on his clothes. He got up and walked, then ran, and then before Andy had moved from where he was, Jason was gone, and his sisters were with him, trying to make him stand. He couldn’t get up, so Penny stayed with him while Carol and Bronnie ran together down to the house. Bronnie took the piece of four-by-two with her. Penny picked up the knife from where Jason had dropped it and wedged it under a fallen tree trunk, where none of them could see it.
Mum and Dad had an argument. Mum wanted to take Andy to hospital, and Dad said it would take too long and that it would be better to call Dr Morris. Andy coughed and tried to talk but couldn’t, and Dad changed his mind. Then they argued about which hospital. Dad said Dargaville was closest, and Mum said the road was too twisted and dangerous and Dad would drive too fast on it, and that they should go to Whangarei instead. In the end Mum screamed, not words, just sound, and they got in the car, dropped the girls off at a neighbour’s, and drove to Whangarei.
Mum sat in the back seat with him on the car ride, and most of the way he lay down across the seat with his head in her lap. His eye kept watering, and he thought of Bronnie, swinging that piece of timber, and those nails, piercing into Jason’s head, and the shiny red tips as he tugged them out.
Andy looked to Mum then Dad then closed his eyes.
The doctor was most worried about his chest, and they had to wait for x-ray results. They sat in a curtained room, Mum next to him on the bed, Dad sitting in a chair staring hard at the wall.
“Nothing broken,” said the doctor. “He’s sore, bruised, but he’ll be okay. He’ll take a while to recover fully, a few weeks, with his ribs like this.”
“What do we do?” Mum asked.
“Give him time to heal. I’ll get the nurse to get off the paint as much as she can. So, other than that, I just need to have a word. Can you—please?” the doctor said, and Mum and the doctor went out into the hallway. Andy kept his eyes closed and Dad didn’t move or speak.
Dr Morris visited them at home that night. Andy’s chest hurt, and when he tried to talk it was like squeezing the last of the toothpaste from the tube. He thought about Bronnie, and what might happen when people found out she’d killed Jason by stabbing him in the brain with those nails.
Andy breathed in as deep as he could so that he could squeeze out some words. “Do you know about Jason?” Andy asked Dr Morris.
“Yes, I was at his house this afternoon.”
Andy held his chest and said, “Is he dead yet?”
“Jason. Is he dead yet?”
The doctor looked as if he might laugh, but didn’t. “He’s not dead, and he’s not going to die. He had a puncture wound above his ear, and I stitched him up. There was a lot of blood but there always is with head wounds.”
Andy saw Lorraine once more. She drove over to talk to Mum, on the Monday afternoon after it happened. She was at their place for a long time. Dad had gone out because Mum said he had to. He’d gone to Uncle Bruce’s which was about an hour’s drive away. He was gone the whole afternoon, even though it was a Monday and the cattle needed to be moved into the triangle paddock.
Andy stayed in his room when she visited, but watched out his window as she left. When Lorraine said goodbye to Mum on the driveway, Lorraine cried. Mum put her arms around her and rubbed her back. After she drove away, Mum pulled up one of those apple boxes and sat down and started crying herself. She didn’t stop until Penny and Bronnie went out to get her.
Mum thought it would be good for Andy to go back to Sunday school before he started regular school.
“Sounds okay,” Andy said. It would be good to see Michael without Mum and Dad watching, and it would be okay to see Savannah too.
Pastor Cunningham did his usual speech in the morning, and they did the group session afterwards. As Andy was going to leave, Pastor Cunningham asked him to stay back.
“Can we talk, Andy?”
“How about a cup of tea?” He shrugged. He didn’t drink tea. “Well, I’ll have one, and you can have one if you like. Come on.” Pastor Cunningham led Andy out of the church and across the courtyard to his flat. The season had changed from winter to spring, on the calendar at least. It was September, and as they walked across the courtyard the sun came out for a second, and Andy could feel a hint of the warmth it would have once the season turned for real.
“What happened?” said Andy. Part of the wall on the side of the pastor’s flat had been sanded back to bare wood. There was a square of plywood where a window should have been.
“A broken window.”
“But that,” said Andy, pointing at the wall.
“Just some graffiti,” said the pastor, “no big deal.”
“It’s not the first church house to be vandalised. Won’t be the last.”
It was the first time he’d been inside Pastor Cunningham’s flat. He sat at a kitchen table. There was only one chair at the table, so Pastor Cunningham dragged another one from the lounge, where it had been holding open the door to the hallway. On the wall behind the television was a bookcase, filled and overflowing with all sorts of books. There were lots of books without names on the spines, or with Roman numerals or other symbols but no words, but also lots of glossy books about fishing, and a couple of cook-books and a handbook on tying knots. On the kitchen wall there was a big clock, and next to that was a small painting of Jesus, in one of his onion-sack dresses, smiling a half smile, as if he was happy but knew it wouldn’t last that long.
Pastor Cunningham poured himself some tea and spilled some of the water, then opened his mouth and closed it again. He eventually sat down opposite Andy.
“Are you okay?” the pastor asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Jason,” said Pastor Cunningham. Andy’s chest tightened.
“Oh. Yeah,” said Andy.
“I’m sorry,” said Pastor Cunningham. His voice wavered slightly, and then his mouth turned down. He looked at his cup. Andy didn’t know what to do when an adult cried. If it was a kid, he would know, but not when it was an adult. He just sat there and waited. “I tried,” said the pastor.
“You liked him,” said Andy, without really knowing why he said it. Pastor Cunningham thought for a couple of seconds, resting each hand palm down on the table, looking at his tea.
“I wanted to,” he said.
“He was your favourite,” said Andy.
“What do you mean?”
“At Sunday school. He knew all the answers.”
Pastor Cunningham stood up. “That wasn’t it. I thought I could help.”
Andy felt sick, could smell the spray paint again, his chest was pressed like that toothpaste tube. “You gave him chocolate,” said Andy.
Pastor Cunningham looked at the bookcase over Andy’s shoulder, then sat down again. Andy’s left eye started to water.
“Yes,” he said, and they both went quiet.
“I don’t know, I mean, I’m not sure about—” Andy looked to the painting on the kitchen wall.
“You’re not sure about God?” asked Pastor Cunningham.
Pastor Cunningham brought his hand to his forehead. He rubbed one eyebrow with his index finger and the other with his thumb. “Yeah,” he said.
“Don’t tell Mum.”
“Okay.” They were both quiet again.
Pastor Cunningham sat there in that chair, his head resting on his hands, for a minute or two. Mum’s voice broke the quiet.
“Andy?” she said. She was out in the courtyard.
The pastor moved to the door. “In here.”
“Hello,” she said.
“Hi,” said Pastor Cunningham. He walked back into the kitchen and leaned against the bench. “I was just — talking to Andy.”
“How are you doing?” she asked the pastor.
“You know, now that Lorraine—” and Mum looked at Andy and stopped. Pastor Cunningham shrugged.
“Now that Lorraine is gone?” he asked.
Mum looked itchy, and said “I had hoped you two—”
“She’s gone,” said the pastor. “It’s how things are. She and I, maybe, if things had been different — but if they had been, she and I would never have—” He paused. “I’m okay.” He sipped his tea. “Cup of tea?” he asked Mum. She ignored his question.
“It’s just, it’s bloody shit,” said Mum, and Andy jumped because Mum hardly ever swore, and what’s more she just did it in front of Pastor Cunningham at church. Pastor Cunningham hadn’t even seemed to notice.
“Yes, that’s about right,” he said.
“Will you still be able to see her?”
“She wouldn’t tell me where they were going.”
“Hell,” said Mum, and Andy looked at Pastor Cunningham.
“Yeah,” he said.
It was November and well into spring, and it rained quite a lot. The front paddock was green with garlic, leaves as high as Andy’s knees. He walked down the rows sometimes and would run his hand across the tops of the leaves like he was dragging his fingers in the harbour’s water. The plants had the faintest hint of garlic wafting off them, and in the morning the dew would bead on the green like seawater on a gull’s feathers.
“When can we dig them up?” Andy asked Dad as they stood on the lawn. He’d actually dug up one of the plants without Dad knowing, and had held the small bulb cupped in his hands. He had wondered who would eat such a thing.
“Couple of months.” The breeze rolled in waves across the leaves in the front paddock.
“How do you know when?”
“The leaves turn yellow, then brown.”
“Doesn’t that mean the plants are dying?”
“Not dying. Just ready.”
“Why do they have to turn brown?”
“They put all their energy into their work below the soil. They don’t need the leaves anymore.” Andy looked at the acres of colour and tried to imagine the green fading, dropping and drying to brown. It seemed a shame.
“What happened to the knife?”
“Knife?” said Dad.
“The police have it. They will look after it.”
“Oh. I thought it might still be up there.” Andy gestured with the back of his head up to trees.
Andy said to Dad, “Can you come and help me clean up my hut?” It was Sunday morning. After breakfast they went up there, Andy and Dad, and Bronnie and Penny and Carol.
No-one had been to the hut since the thing with Jason. The closest they’d got was Apricot’s fence. As the kids trooped through her paddock, Apricot looked fatter than ever — more like a sausage dog than a horse. Bronnie stopped to stroke her neck and Andy waited.
Dad drove the tractor up at walking pace alongside the kids. He’d packed his belt sander, two of his long extension cords, and the petrol generator. Bronnie had a piece of sandpaper and a block of wood. When they got there, no-one said much; they just got straight to it. Dad started the generator and went to the word Jason had written in that pink paint. He revved the sander. Bronnie started sanding other spots of paint and, in a few places, splashes of blood that could have been Andy’s or Jason’s. Carol shifted the dung, which was now dry and pale grey. A little way from the action, Penny stood, watching, like she was standing guard. Andy started to cry.
Dad took him back to the house and he lay down — his eye and chest had started to hurt again. Dad stayed with him until he was quiet. When he left, Dad gently pulled the door, but didn’t shut it completely. Out in the hallway, Dad talked to Mum, and he sounded strange because his voice was shaking. Eventually everything went quiet. Andy fell asleep just before lunchtime.
Andy spent quite a bit of time in his hut, once it had been all cleaned up. His missions were different though, after everything. He didn’t blow up enemy bases that looked like Penny’s room any more. Penny actually came into his hut one time, after it had all happened, when he was on a mission. She said, “Ew” and left again pretty quickly, but still.
Mum came to sit with him in his hut one weekend day, a few months after Jason had gone, just before Christmas. By then the garlic was nearly ready, and Dad had said it was all looking good for the harvest. Andy waited for the leaves to turn, but they were still that silky green, still rolling in the breeze like the water on the Kaipara.
“What’s your mission?” Mum asked.
“Crop dusting.” Mum looked surprised. “It’s not as easy as it sounds. It takes a pilot with skill and talent and daring.” He’d never got around to invading Mururoa, but it didn’t matter. He’d heard Dad say that Mururoa was going to sink into the ocean any day now — that was good enough.
“What’s the crop?” she asked.
“Chocolate bars, like Dairy Milk and Moro and Crunchie. They’ve worked out how to grow it from plants. They hang off them like cucumbers off a vine.”
Mum nodded, and asked if she could help out.
“You could be the navigator maybe?”
“Sounds perfect,” she said.
Andy glanced over at the spider who had been previously assigned to that post. He wasn’t the same spider as before, he was smaller, but he looked sort of the same and might even have been in the same family. Or maybe he was as big, but just didn’t look it, because nothing really looked as big or small or the same as it used to. Those cracks between the planks on the crate weren’t as wide, and he couldn’t get his fingers through them so easily anymore. And it seemed to take less time to walk to his hut, as if the distance was closing — as if the hut was his dinghy and it was being slowly pulled to shore by a length of rope. The gravel on the driveway had a different sound, not crunchy and sharp like before, more like someone screwing up a piece of paper. Even the blackboard at school had seemed to change. It wasn’t black at all. One side was dark grey and the other was green — the colour of the bottles of important beer that Dad drank at Christmas.
“Okay, you have to press the launch button,” Andy said, and pointed to a bottle cap glued to one of the planks.
“Right. Here we go,” she said, and they began.