Who writes good creative non-fiction in New Zealand? Journalists hammer away at it with their big fat thumbs, but writer John Summers is rather more nuanced in his fascinating and recently published collection of true stories, The Mermaid Boy (Hue & Cry Press, $30).
We got up early, packed away our things and began our hitching on empty stomachs. This wasn’t a decision. Tea bags were all that remained of the supplies we had bought. We lathered ourselves with sunscreen, another layer to yesterday’s and the day before’s. It was necessary – the sun here was crisp and brutal – but it also meant that our bodies were magnets for the dust of each passing car.
‘I’m so greasy,’ Gareth said, as he smeared a handful into his face.
I tried to think when we had last showered or slept in a bed – it could only have been at the home of those people near Whangarei, Gareth’s parents’ friends.
A battered people mover approached. Another local, but he stopped. A tall and overweight Māori man leaned towards the window. ‘I can take you to the hill. There’s a lookout where all the tourists stop. You’ll get a ride there easy.’
It was a kind offer and we got in. The man waited for us to clip our seatbelts before we drove on. Pictures of his kids were posted to the dash. He smiled at me in the rear-view mirror, and asked us questions about our trip as he drove.
The road branched into two. One carried on towards Tāne Mahuta, New Zealand’s largest kauri tree, and Dargaville. The other was a local road that wound back to Ōpononi. The man pulled up at the start of the local road. We were beside the lookout. It was a narrow grass verge with a view of the Hokianga Harbour.
The driver eased back from the steering wheel and took a small wad of tinfoil out of his pocket. ‘Do you fellas smoke?’
I couldn’t really follow all the details but somehow it involved a website called mymoko.com, bookmarks with a code built into them and sponsoring trees. It was going to make him a lot of money, he said. I thought it sounded a bit stupid but no sillier than most internet businesses. Gareth was lapping it up. It was an amazing idea, he said. He told the man he was bound to make a fortune.
‘You see, I have plans,’ the man said. ‘My family though, we get a hard time. My father is a Doyle and around here we have this joke. There’s a bunny rabbit and a frog. Both of them are blind and they don’t know what they are. They don’t know they’re a bunny rabbit and a frog. But one day the bunny rabbit says to the frog, Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t you feel me up?’ He paused while we chuckled at this. ‘You see, then you can tell me what I am. So the frog feels the bunny
rabbit. He says, Okay, you’ve got big fluffy ears, long legs and a fluffy puku. Why, you’re a bunny rabbit. So then the frog says, Okay, Mr Bunny Rabbit, now you feel me up and tell me what I am. The bunny rabbit feels up the frog and he says, You’ve got a bald head, a big fat puku and a greasy whero. Why, you’re a Doyle!’
The van was suddenly loud with our laughter.
Once it was quiet again Gareth turned to the driver. ‘Yeah, man,’ he said. ‘I’m really greasy right now.’
The man did a double take. He narrowed his eyes as he tried to think what Gareth might have meant. ‘Yeah, well,’ he said. ‘We all are. But we got to get beyond the greasy and be where we want to be.’
He explained how mymoko.com would help him personally get beyond the greasy. I couldn’t listen to any of it. Gareth’s comment and the man’s reaction had set me off in intense but completely silent hysterics. I rocked back and forth on my seat, my whole body quivering uncontrollably. I remained in this state long after I had forgotten what was funny in the first place.
We had been in the van for a long time. That joke had gone on for a while, and so had all those business ideas. It was time for us to wrap things up and get on our way. After all, we were only ten minutes from where we had started. There was a lull in the man’s talk. It was a good time to say something about us needing to move on, but I couldn’t do it. I was lurching about, silently laughing. Words would not come from my mouth. I also found myself obsessed by the notion that the man resembled Norman Kirk. Gareth would need to say something. The man began to talk about the Civil Union Bill. He was opposed to it.
‘I don’t care if a person is gay,’ he said. ‘I mean, you could be gay. That fella in the back could be gay. You could be a couple of gays together, tearing about the country. But when you make it the law, well, then you have to teach that law in school and so you say to some kid, You go and be a gay.’
He leaned forward to relight his joint. His arms were criss-crossed with scars. They were clean lines, knife scars. I hadn’t spotted these before, and I watched the man closely in the rear-view mirror. His eyes met mine, and his face flashed with anger. He swore something under his breath.
‘I don’t think so,’ Gareth said. ‘I studied psychology …’
The road we were parked on led off down the hill, into the shade of two gnarled macrocarpas. The man would carry on down that road till we were somewhere more remote. There he would beat us with a length of steel pipe. I would be horribly bruised; perhaps a few ribs would be broken. But I could absorb a beating to my chest and sides. I would survive and I would have a story to tell. Suddenly, I had a vision of my face stretched in a grin, blood running down my chin and my mouth a mess of caved-in teeth. Even as I thought these things, I was still gripped by that silent laughter.
Whatever Gareth was saying had an effect.
‘Interesting,’ the man said. ‘Very interesting.’
He looked up and scowled at me in the mirror. We needed to get away immediately. I had made it through adolescence without ever needing braces. A dentistry student had once told me my teeth were especially straight and regular. Any minute now the man would ask if we wanted to stay with him and Gareth would agree. He would agree without the slightest hesitation. How could he be so naïve? How could he put us in this situation? It was entirely up to me. I needed to pre-empt this, to overcome my hysterics and do something.
I spoke in one rushed mutter, ‘Bettergetgoing,’ and lunged for the door. The feeling of grass under my feet was reassuring, and I pulled open the passenger seat and grabbed Gareth by his arm.
He thanked the man as I pulled him out. ‘I think your ideas are awesome,’ he said.
He closed the door and the man looked at us through the window. He looked past Gareth to me and he narrowed his eyes and ground his teeth in an expression of pure hate. He turned back to the wheel and drove away. I had rescued us.
The Mermaid Boy (Hue & Cry Press, $30) published in April. Available from our sponsors, Unity Books
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.