‘Two Girls in a Boat’ won the overall 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and the regional prize for the Pacific.
Hannah was tired. Not in the way she used to know tiredness, when an early night and a morning in bed would revive her. She remembered those mornings as if they were a film she once saw: two girls asleep in an upstairs bedroom, the windows open because no neighbour was high enough to see in, white curtains billowing in the breeze, a triangle of sunlight warming the duvet – and didn’t Zoë choose the cover that day at IKEA, and they couldn’t stop laughing, and her credit card was declined, and the cashier with the dreadlocks rolled her eyes, but it didn’t matter because there was money in Hannah’s purse, and they ran down the travelator with their trolley to the car, and kissed in the car park. Not tired like that.
No. This was a tiredness that caused Hannah to walk into a travel agent in Clapham High Street on a grey Tuesday morning and buy a ticket to New Zealand.
‘Return?’ said the agent, her nails clicking on the keyboard as she typed. ‘One way,’ said Hannah, and didn’t bother to phone in sick to work but walked across Clapham Common, ankle deep in rotting leaves, past the Italian café and the band rotunda and sat at the pond, where the geese mobbed her for bread and then gave her up as a bad deal.
On the plane she watched four episodes of an American sitcom and a movie about a woman and a man who have a misunderstanding, with the ending where he takes her in his arms and she tilts her face upward so they can kiss. There’s always that tilt, because she is just the right amount shorter than he is, and if she isn’t, they do something with stools or telephone books, like they used to with Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The film annoyed Hannah, but she cried anyway; first blinked tears down her cheeks with matted lashes, then actually sobbed. Her neighbour to the left shifted slightly in her seat, and the one to the right moved his elbow off their shared armrest and put on his headphones.
Hannah’s mother was at Wellington airport to meet her. She looked older, her eyelids hooded, the skin on her neck newly creased. Hannah quelled a rising sense of indignation – no less acute for being unjustified – that her mother had not remained unaltered from when Hannah had farewelled her at this very airport six years earlier. They drove back to her house, a different house from the one Hannah knew, with the same furniture rearranged into smaller rooms. They sat on cane chairs in the cramped conservatory and drank instant coffee. Jetlag came at Hannah in waves. Her mother was talking, but she couldn’t co-ordinate her own mouth to reply.
‘Am I that boring?’ her mother said eventually.
‘Not you. Tired.’
‘Why don’t you just go to bed then?’
Hannah started to say you were supposed to stick it out till nighttime to recalibrate your body clock, but the concept seemed too complicated to explain, so instead she went to her room and lay on her bed, which was saggier than she remembered, and closed her eyes, promising herself she would only rest for half an hour. She woke at midnight to a dark house. She crept down the hall, cool air wafting through the gaps in the floorboards. The fridge cast a feeble light across the kitchen. She found a packet of cheese slices, each individually wrapped, peeled off the cellophane and ate the flat, limp squares which also had the texture and sheen of plastic.
Zoë would be having lunch now, maybe in that Cypriot place they used to love, flat bread and fried halloumi, koupepkia and watermelon. Hannah had planned to leave the country discreetly and with dignity, but three nights before her flight she somehow ended up drunk on the street outside Zoë’s new flat. She pressed the button, but Zoë wouldn’t buzz her in.
‘It’s three o’ fucking clock in the morning,’ she called down from the top window, a shadow moving in the room behind her. ‘I can’t even look at you. You’re embarrassing.’
The fridge bleeped. Hannah had left the door ajar. She pushed it closed, put the cellophane in the flip top bin under the sink and went back to bed where she lay, eyes open, staring into darkness. She saw Zoë standing in a pool of light in the hallway of their old flat, her hair a river of shining copper, her lashes clotted with the previous night’s mascara, holding a gilded envelope in her hand. As she drifted into sleep she could hear Zoë’s voice. ‘Take it,’ she was saying. She held out the envelope, which glinted in the sun. I mustn’t, Hannah thought. But she reached out her hand, and as she touched it the envelope dissolved, and Zoë dissolved too, and the hallway with its flaking Rococo ceiling and faded velvet curtains melted and collapsed – and the sun blinked out like a light.
There followed a month of dull, sedated days and restless nights, Hannah’s body slow to relinquish the rhythms of a continent and a life now lost to her. Eventually she yielded to her mother’s entreaties and signed up with a temping agency. She submitted to psychometric tests (‘to place you in the perfect role, we need to know the real you!’); flummoxed by most of the questions, she ticked the answers she assumed they wanted.
She hadn’t brought much back with her from London – only a suitcase, and a tea chest which was still on a ship. When she looked at her clothes hanging in her wardrobe she felt a stab of loss. Grey trousers, a clutch of cardigans, a black dress. In London they were so many and so various, second hand,
deconstructed, from a market or that shop in Bethnal Green, the one with the nude dummies in the window: a green tam-o’-shanter, scarlet satin gloves, a Girl Scout shirt with the original badges, feather boas, a Russian army hat, the whale bone corset with the velvet ribbons – she could feel Zoë’s foot on the small of her back as she pulled those ribbons tight, remembering how they travelled half way across London to see the New Queen of Burlesque, laughing on the tube, all blusher and lipstick, drunk on Singapore Slings with maraschino cherries . . . She closed the wardrobe door. From the kitchen she could hear her mother unloading the dishwasher, the rumble of the kettle. She buttoned her blouse, straightened her skirt, brushed her hair from her face and tied it in a pony tail. She looked in the mirror, and a drab, unremarkable girl looked back.
‘My name is Hannah,’ she said.
‘My name is Hannah,’ the girl replied.
She noticed him in the mornings, driving past while she waited at the bus stop. Sometimes their eyes met, and then one morning, rain, southerly, it was natural for him to offer her a lift, natural and neighbourly, and it would have been churlish to decline. She sat damply in his passenger seat, noted the surge of the engine as he accelerated up the hill, the way he steered with one hand, resting the other on his thigh. He had the wiry, graceful build of a climber, a sense about him of energy held in check. His name was Ben. They followed the trolley lines down the other side of the hill, and instead of letting her out on his way along the one-way system, he looped around and stopped directly outside her building. He asked about her job.
‘It’s quite important actually. Today I’ll be telephoning rate-payers and asking their opinion on an exciting waterfront development.’
‘I’d better not keep you then,’ he said, smiling.
‘No. You’d better not.’
He stopped for her again the next day (sunny, light breeze). He was perfectly nice. White teeth, polite, smart, funny. Hannah noticed these things impartially, as if they didn’t affect her. She was tired, after all. But it turned out it was easier to say ‘yes’ than ‘no’, and they went on a Thursday evening to Te Papa to see the Monet exhibition, all colour and light, where she found herself returning again and again to a painting of two girls in white dresses, in a boat on the water.
‘Do you like that one?’ asked Ben. He wanted to know why, so she talked about the painting’s composition, the play of the light, omitting the simple fact of two girls together and no-one else in the frame.
‘How come you know so much about art?’
‘I’m bluffing,’ she said.
‘You bluff well.’
That was what Zoë had said. They’d been standing in their hallway poring over the gilded envelope which had plopped without warning onto their doormat.
‘Who’s Costanza De Luca?’ said Zoë , reading the name written in embellished cursive script.
‘I don’t know, but she sounds glamorous,’ said Hannah.
‘I guess there’d be no harm,’ said Zoë.
‘If we opened it,’ said Hannah.
Inside was an invitation to an opening at the Tate Modern addressed to Miss De Luca and guest. Hannah wore a crimson and gold cheongsam; Zoë wore a sequinned halter neck and coiled her hair in a complicated chignon.
‘And you are . . . ?’ said the doorman as they stood before him, Zoë’s fox fur stole shivering in the wind.
‘Costanza De Luca,’ said Hannah evenly. ‘And this is my guest.’
Zoë suppressed a cough. The doorman let them in; they drank Moët in slender flutes, then disappeared giggling into the Ladies, where they shared a line of something Zoë had in her handbag. Zoë draped her arms around Hannah’s neck and kissed her.
‘It’s almost scary,’ she said, ‘how good at this you are.’
Ben was now looking at her with the same mix of awe and alarm. He had nice eyes. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed his eyes till now. They left Te Papa and walked around the waterfront, their arms brushing against each other. A row of lanterns, metal spheres split around their equators, leaked
yellow light across their path. They stopped at a bar and sat under its gently flapping awning, looking out across the harbour. Each time Hannah emptied her glass a waitress materialised to refill it. Ben told Hannah he thought the most important thing in a relationship was trust and she couldn’t disagree. Their waitress had turned away, but it seemed to Hannah she was listening, standing quite still, her head cocked slightly to the left. She had a swallow inked across the back of her neck, the lines crisp and blue. Under the table Hannah’s hand found Ben’s, which was warm and pleasant to touch, and not in the least like Zoë’s, which was slender and quick, and had sometimes put Hannah in mind of a darting animal: a shrew, or a mouse. The lights on Ben’s car dashboard blinked at her as they drove back up the hill.
‘That was your stop,’ he said as they passed the bus shelter.
He’s an environmental engineer,’ said Hannah.
Her mother was repotting succulents on the deck, surrounded by terracotta and bags of compost. Hannah was bruising an aloe leaf between her thumb and forefinger.
‘How old is he?’
‘A bit older than me.’
‘How much older?’
‘Thirteen years older?’
Hannah had meant to sound blasé, but her answer came out like a question. Her mother put down her trowel and looked at her.
‘He’s thirty nine?!’
‘Forty. But only just.’
‘So why isn’t he married yet?’
‘Um – he was.’
‘He doesn’t have children, does he?’
‘Would it matter if he did?’
Her mother raised her eyebrows.
‘Broken marriages can get messy,’ she said.
‘You think you need to tell me that?’
When, as a child, Hannah had visited her father, her step-mother had required her to strip off her clothes in the porch before entering the house, ushering her straight to the bathroom where Hannah would shower, wash her hair and dress in the clothes her step-mother had laid out. It was only years later she realised this had been in any way odd; at the time she accepted that she must not contaminate her step-mother’s house with reminders of her mother, just as she must shield her mother, through silence and dissembling, from the scorching details of her father’s domestic arrangements. Sometimes, looking back, it seemed to Hannah that she’d had not one childhood, but two.
Hannah’s mother upended a pot and tapped it with the trowel to loosen the soil.
‘Have you heard from your friend?’ she said.
‘It was Zoë, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes. And no,’ said Hannah.
‘That’s a pity,’ said her mother. ‘You know, Mandy from work has got a niece who – lives with another woman.’
Oh my God, thought Hannah, please don’t make us have this conversation.
‘You might know them? Their names are Sharon and Jo.’
‘I don’t know them, Mum.’
‘Sharon’s having a baby in May.’
‘I didn’t know they could do that.’
‘Apparently you just need a syringe and a –’
Hannah’s mother sat back on her haunches and looked at her innocently. On her first Christmas with Zoë, Hannah had sent her mother a photograph of the two of them in white sailor suits on a float at the Manchester Mardi Gras, Hannah’s scarlet lip-print on Zoë’s cheek. The float’s spangled banner read Lesbian Love Boat. Her mother had persisted in referring to Zoë as Hannah’s flatmate. And yet here she was now, trowel in hand, face smudged with potting mix, offering the gift of her acceptance clumsily and too late.
‘I was going to put the jug on,’ said Hannah. ‘Do you want tea?’
‘Oh. I suppose so.’
As Hannah walked down the hallway to the kitchen she heard her mother call: , ‘I just want you to be true to yourself, Hannah.’ Hannah watched the tea swirl as she stirred in the milk. But be true to which self? she thought. Now that is the question.
The Tate Modern was just the beginning. More invitations arrived. There were private views and charity auctions, soirées at the National Gallery and the Royal Academy; Miss De Luca and guest once even appeared, blurred, in the society pages of Harper’s Bazaar. At an after-party one night in a basement club in Soho, leather panelled walls, buckets of champagne on ice, a Scottish man they knew only as Mac appeared with a woman they had not seen before.
‘These are the girls I was telling you about,’ he said. The woman was tall
and slim, with curly dark hair flowing wild and loose down her back.
‘I’ve been wanting so much to meet you both,’ she said in a heavy accent.
‘You must be . . .?’
‘Zoë,’ said Zoë, reaching out her hand.
‘Costanza,’ said Hannah.
‘Charmed.’ The woman smiled. ‘It is unusual, yes, for English woman to have Italian name?’
‘Actually I’m not English, I’m from New Zealand, but my grandfather came from –’
‘I ask because my name is Costanza too.’
There was a pause.
‘Oh,’ said Hannah. She felt her cheeks go hot.
‘Is coincidence, yes?’
‘Isn’t it?’ said Zoë brightly.
‘La vostra amica è molta bella,’ said Costanza to Hannah.
‘Oh, your grandfather did not teach you Italian.’
‘No,’ said Hannah. ‘I wish he had.’
Costanza insisted they join her for a drink. Hannah thought she could detect a shrillness in her voice, but her face was all smiles. They sat on sunken couches in a booth with Costanza’s party, who treated them like dear friends, plying them with drinks, debating which pre-Raphaelite beauty Zoë most resembled. Costanza was attentive, almost self-effacing, soliciting Hannah’s opinion on several exhibitions which, unfortunately, she herself had been unable to attend. When Hannah tried to plead ignorance, Costanza cried, ‘You are too modest! No, you must tell me what you thought.’
‘We should leave,’ Hannah whispered to Zoë when Costanza was distracted by the arrival of more guests.
‘Are you nuts?’ said Zoë. ‘Costanza’s lovely! I can’t believe she’s been so cool about – you know.’
Somehow Costanza ended up seated between them. She wore chandelier ear-rings, studded with cold, bright gems Hannah suspected were real diamonds. Her head thick with alcohol, ears buzzing, Hannah found herself looking stupidly from Costanza to Zoë, who were discussing an avant-garde artist of whom Hannah had never heard, but who in Costanza’s opinion was scandalously underrated, and whose artistic vision she described with passionate intensity. Hannah was unable to make sense of the words coming from Zoë’s mouth in reply, but was frozen by the expression on her face; and in the weeks that followed, while Zoë insisted nothing had changed – and indeed on the surface nothing had – it was this expression Hannah kept coming back to: Zoë with her lips slightly parted, her eyes shining, looking like a child who has shed her dress- ups, and walked for the first time into the real party.
Hannah’s calves ached. There were a hundred and five steps from the road to Ben’s house, a single bay villa with a broad veranda, which stood on a ridge overlooking the harbour basin – sunny, but exposed to the south and prone to be buffeted by violent gales. The feijoa tree in the garden had grown at an angle, appearing on a calm day to be cowering absurdly. It had been planted by Ben’s ex-wife when they bought the property, but she had grown impatient with its repeated infestation by guava moths.
‘It was symbolic of our marriage, apparently,’ said Ben, sitting down on the edge of the veranda next to Hannah, who had taken off her shoes and socks and was cooling her feet in the unmown grass. As always when he spoke of his ex- wife, Hannah was struck by his restraint. He described their separation with curious detachment, and a simulacrum of composure that was betrayed only by an occasional, involuntary wince when he spoke her name.
‘And what about you?’ he said. ‘Was there someone in London?’
‘There was,’ said Hannah. A fantail had landed on the feijoa tree and was flitting from branch to branch. ‘But she left me for someone else.’ She watched Ben carefully but his face remained impassive; perhaps inordinately so. ‘It was someone we both knew,’ she continued. ‘An art collector. It was kind of going on for a while, before I found out.’
‘Well we’ve got at least one thing in common then.’
Hannah felt something that had been clenched very tightly inside her release a little. She asked Ben what had made him stop for her that morning in the rain. He told her he couldn’t stand the thought that someone else would pick her up instead.
‘So it was a case of getting in first.’
‘It was case of not leaving you at the mercy of the Wellington commuting public. Have you seen the way some of these people drive?’
He didn’t exactly ask her to move in and she didn’t exactly suggest it: but little by little, all of her things seemed to find their way to his house. Sometimes at night she found herself thinking of Zoë, of her pale breasts and catlike eyes, of the water beading down her back when she stepped, hair dripping, from the bath – surprised that she could, seemingly without consequence, entertain such thoughts with Ben asleep beside her, his unknowing arm draped across her torso, his hand brushing against her breast. She retained the habit of mentally reversing times and seasons – if she woke at dawn, she would feel the cool shadow of a London evening pass across her – but London had begun to seem a dream, out-pigmented by the purple magnolia that flowered beside the veranda, out-perfumed by the deformed but heavily fruited feijoa.
Ben’s children stayed on Wednesday nights and alternate weekends. They were an angry little boy and a little girl with eczema, worst on the back of her knees, which she scratched till they bled. In the nights sometimes she woke crying, but if Hannah shook Ben he would mumble something and promptly fall back to sleep. So it was Hannah who rubbed aqueous cream into the child’s raw skin, who stroked her hair and sung her lullabies, marvelling at how she had ended up here, on this bed, with a child who trusted her enough to fall asleep in her arms; and if sometimes she wondered whether this was the life she wanted, at least it wasn’t obvious to her that it was not.
Hannah and Ben were married on the shore of the Frank Kitts lagoon on the city side of Wellington harbour. An ecstasy of tui were ransacking nearby clumps of harakeke for nectar. The celebrant said, do you take this man, and Hannah said, I do. The reception was upstairs in the historic boat house. It was the first time in twenty years that Hannah’s parents had been in the same room, her mother unaccompanied, her father with his latest wife. He seized the opportunity to make a speech.
‘She won’t thank me for mentioning this,’ he said, ‘but I remember when
Hannah was sixteen years old she stated rather firmly that she would not be getting married. She used rather stronger words than that, which I won’t repeat here.’ There was ripple of laughter. ‘And yet here she is, and here we are.’
It seemed to Hannah he was not so much congratulating her as gloating. Ben squeezed her hand. Her eyes flicked around the room.
‘Have you seen my mother?’ she said.
She found her later alone in a corner. Under the dim light she looked spectral, in her lilac dress and her too-closely matching shoes.
‘You missed the speeches. Mum?’
Her mother didn’t answer.
‘What’s going on? It’s Ben, isn’t it? You’ve never really given him a chance.’
‘I like Ben. He’s a very nice man.’
‘Okay. Great. So it’s not Ben. Then what?’
‘It’s nothing. Just . . . I hope you know what you’re doing. Marriage isn’t something to enter lightly.’
‘Um – aren’t you supposed to give me this speech before I say my vows?’
‘Although of course not everyone sees it that way.’
Hannah followed her mother’s gaze to her father, who had abandoned his wife and attached himself to Ben’s prettiest cousin. A waitress drifted across the room with a tray, a tattoo of a swallow on the back of her neck.
‘Why don’t I get you a drink,’ said Hannah.
She swished across the room, white tulle brushing the floor. She saw Ben by the door to the balcony.
‘My mother’s being weird,’ she said.
‘Mothers are always weird at weddings.’
‘I think she thinks I’m making a mistake.’
‘Why would she think that?’
‘I don’t know. Why would she?’
‘Could it be because she knows deep down you’ll never be happy with a man?’
Hannah stared at him.
‘It’s a joke, honey.’
‘I know that.’
The waitress appeared in front of them and held out the tray. Hannah took a glass, and the waitress gave her a little smile, as if they shared a secret. She had the face of a schoolgirl, but the storybook arms of a tattooed lady. Hannah watched her as she wove around the room. She had a way of steering the tray in a straight line, even when her body swayed to avoid obstacles. She neatly side- stepped Ben’s daughter who, intoxicated by the lateness of the hour and the absence of any adult telling her she must calm down, was whirling wildly around the dance floor with another flower girl. Ben was talking, but his words washed over Hannah. Out the window, the sky had grown dark and the city lights on the harbour were kaleidoscopic and dizzying.
‘Can you give this to my mum?’ she said, handing Ben the glass. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
Her shoes rubbed her heels as she walked down the wooden staircase, so she took them off and left them just inside the entrance. She stepped out the door into a warm breeze. A cyclist glided by, his bike tick ticking in the quiet night. Her dress rustled as she walked, and she could hear the lapping of water on rocks. There were steps down to the shore, and at the bottom of the steps, a walkway under a bridge to a floating pontoon, which undulated as she walked along it. Small waves washed over the side, staining her hem.
At the end of the pontoon, she stopped. There was something in the harbour, a black shape, which floated on the surface then disappeared. It was too large for a bird, too small to be human. She felt the pontoon wobble. She turned, sensing that Ben had followed her. But it wasn’t Ben. It was the waitress, smoking a cigarette and walking slowly towards her.
‘Did you see that?’ said the waitress, pointing at the water.
Hannah looked again. The creature resurfaced, closer this time.
‘What is it?’ she said.
‘It’s a seal, I think. A baby one, maybe.’
It dived and reappeared a few metres from the end of the pontoon; Hannah caught sight of its sleek, whiskered face. It twisted lazily, lifting its flippers to the sky.
‘Do you think a seal at a wedding is a good omen or a bad one?’ said
The waitress laughed.
‘I have no idea,’ she said.
She inhaled deeply on her cigarette.
‘Nice dress,’ she said.
‘Thanks,’ said Hannah. She looked out across the harbour. A waxing moon hung over the Rimutakas. ‘I used to know someone who said if she ever got married, she’d arrive at the wedding like Lady Godiva, naked on horseback.’
‘That would have been worth seeing.’
‘It would,’ said Hannah.
They stood in silence. Hannah thought about Ben; how, the previous night, he had turned to her with an expression she had not seen before. ‘You know I love you, don’t you,’ he had said, and she had laughed and said, ‘Don’t look so worried.’
She was aware of the waitress beside her, of the smoke curling from the tip of her cigarette, a smell which in former years she had disliked yet now felt strangely nostalgic for. From behind her, across the water, she thought she could hear someone calling her name.
The waitress took a final puff on her cigarette, dropped it on the pontoon, and stubbed it out with her foot.
‘I might see you around,’ she said.
As the waitress turned, Hannah caught a glimpse of the swallow on her neck. Then she walked back along the pontoon and disappeared into the boat house.
The seal was swimming in loops now, chasing its own hind fins. Hannah wondered how such a small pup had ended up here, far from its colony. Perhaps it was lost; yet there was something jubilant about the way it flipped and corkscrewed, its streamlined body rippling. It disappeared, then shot out of the water several metres away and lay belly up, bathed in moonlight. Then it shook its head and dived once more. Hannah stood for a long time at the end of the pontoon, scanning the slick black water, waiting for its return; but it was gone.
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