The Shadow Miners

We laughed at the thought of it, laughed so hard tea spilt over the lip of Monty’s mug and spread across the blue plastic tablecloth that covered Bette Petersen’s kitchen table.

We laughed because we could all picture Dean Petersen sitting there, elbows on the green felt of the $25 table at Jupiters, fiddling with his chips as the dealer served him a third blackjack from the same shoe.

He had a drink in front of him apparently. JD’s and Coke it would have been, said Bette. The State of Origin final was playing on the big screen in the background, according to our witness. Queensland won that night, not that Dean would have cared too much. He’d made the First XV back at Buller High and been a strictly Union man ever since. The league didn’t interest him, too flashy. Plus, he was on a winning streak that night.

Bette dabbed at the spilt tea with a towel as the sniggers of laughter receded. We sat there silently after that, contemplating the plastic table cover, avoiding each other’s eyes. Rain pattered against the steamed-up kitchen window.

It was funny to think of Bette’s young boy living it up in the casino at Surfer’s Paradise. Funny in the way you chuckle to yourself when imagining people who have passed on, imagining them doing what they love, fishing or playing the banjo or whatever. For Dean it was blackjack and he was good at it. Lucky too, he himself admitted.

But Dean Petersen was also dead. Dead six months last Friday. Last seen on the back of a trailer, pulled by a John Deere tractor, that delivered miners to the Black Fork coal seam several times a day.

The tractor was driven by my son Gavin, dead six months last Friday too. Like Dean, Gavin did the afternoon shift. It suited him well. He hated early starts. His job, as well as ferrying miners around, was to oversee the coal slurry conveyor system. Coal cut from the seam entered a giant bath of water and was then transferred onto a conveyor belt that carried it all the way up the mine shaft to the surface where it was dumped in a big slushy pile.

The conveyor didn’t break down often, but when it did there was hell to pay. A broken conveyor meant no coal left the mine. The pit bosses hated downtime. There were steel furnaces across Guangzhou Province to feed, the holds of waiting coal freighters to fill. Everyone’s livelihood and the month-end bonuses that kept the men on the Coast relied on an endless river of black slurry rising to the surface every day. It was a stressful job, but Gavin never complained.

He and Dean were good mates, united by the mine, rugby and drinking, but also by their love of the Xbox. They particularly enjoyed Hitman, a violent game that followed the exploits of a serial killer with a conscience who roamed around a noirish landscape carrying out revenge killings on small time thugs and crack dealers. The boys played it before they left for the mine around noon each day.

When I entered Gavin’s place that Sunday afternoon after the press conference, where the cop from Christchurch started using the word “recovery” instead of “rescue”, the image of the hitman was frozen on his flat screen TV. They’d paused the game mid-level so they could carry on playing once the shift was over. I sat on the couch, the sun peaking through the dusty blinds, staring at the tall man in the leather trench coat standing over a body in a grimy stairwell, pump-action shotgun about to give the coup de grace.

The bizarre sighting of Dean Petersen, by an engineer who had worked at Black Fork a couple of years back erecting concrete supports along the pit bottom roadways, was the fifth such sighting of a dead miner so far.

The guy had been staying at his family’s timeshare at Surfer’s and was at Jupiter’s for the buffet and the pokies. As you’d expect, he did a double-take when he saw Dean at the blackjack table. It’s not every day you see a man back from the grave.

He was riding an escalator to the second floor at the time. Coasting skyward, he watched slack-jawed as Dean scored that third blackjack. He saw Dean’s fellow gamblers clap. He watched Dean toast the dealer with his tumbler of bourbon, the league playing on the screen in the background – Queensland ahead after a conversion.

By the time he’d ridden the escalator to the top and walked around to ride it back down again for a better look, Dean’s seat was empty, the dealer shuffling cards for a new shoe, the bourbon glass drained.

All this the engineer related to Bette in an email sent from his old man’s timeshare on the Gold Coast. Bette had called the casino to ask for a copy of the video tape. The casino would have been full of cameras, shots from every angle. But the casino manager never called back. He’d have heard about Black Fork. He’d have though Bette Petersen had gone crazy in her grief down there on the West Coast. Better not to call back.

I would have thought her crazy too had it not been for the letter that turned up in my mailbox one day in April. There was no stamp on the envelope, so I knew straight off that it was hand delivered. Neat block lettering in black ink suggested a tidy, deliberate hand, someone older I thought, probably a man.

Inside was a single page folded in half. More black writing – simply reading,

I unfolded the page. It had a photograph printed on it, slightly washed out, the colours blotchy. It looked like it had been taken on one of those camera phones.

It was the red and black Swanndri shirt that immediately caught my eye. Sarah had put that swanny through the wash for her stepson probably a hundred times – Gavin still brought his washing home, Black Fork-issue overalls excluded. We’d seen it gradually fade, its collar fraying where Gavin’s hard hat rubbed against it. He always wore his collar up, like the trench coat-wearing vigilante in Hitman.

Gavin had his back to the camera phone operator. He was looking out over the forecourt, as though waiting for the attendant to fill his car. He was surrounded by shelves of confectionery and magazines, signs advertising grocery offers and candy bar specials.

The shot was over-exposed, the world beyond a blown-out haze. I imagined Gavin’s Courier truck sitting out by the pumps, but that was just stupid. The Courier hadn’t been anywhere near Turangi, not in April, not ever as far as I knew. It was parked up out the back of my workshop even now.

But the red swanny was unmistakable. Later I’d turned Gavin’s place upside down looking for it and found no trace of it. The shape of his shoulders was also unmistakable from the photograph. That was my son and he had stopped for gas or a snack at the BP in Turangi even though he was supposed to be lying dead at the bottom of Black Fork.

Someone in town had seen him and snapped him on their camera phone. I carried that piece of paper around for a long time before I built up the courage to show Sarah. When I did, after the late news one night and another bulletin on Black Fork, we sat on the couch holding each other, weeping, the letter on the coffee table in front of us.

But when I produced the photo at the meeting at the community centre that night in early May, there’d been an angry response. Some of the parents and Black Fork folk thought it was a sick joke. Others eyed me sadly, the explanations of the grief counsellors and therapists fresh in their minds.

On the way out, Monty Armstrong put his hand on my shoulder and discretely gestured for me to follow him into the empty car park. I expected him to tell me, in Mont’s usual gruff way, to get a grip. Instead he told me he’d received a call from an ex Black Fork cutting machine operator who claimed to have seen Steve O’Neill and Brent Robinson at a Highlanders – Brumbies game in Invercargill at the start of the Super 15 season. That was curious because Steve and Brent, two Coasters born and bred, never made it out of the Black Fork mine either.

Monty had been the mine safety manager at Black Fork, the guy responsible for, among other things, monitoring the methane levels in the pit. He was an Aussie, in his late fifties, stocky and red-faced, a life-long miner who had sweated away decades in the pits of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. He was liked by the guys at Black Fork, respected for his no-nonsense approach to mine safety.

Now he faced a starring role before a commission of enquiry, experts flown in from Queensland leafing through every dog-eared compliance certificate he’d ever signed. We all felt for poor old Monty. But the explosion that ripped through the mine wouldn’t have happened if Black Fork was truly safe, would it? Anyway, he would never be a real Coaster.

“We need to hold things together mate,” Monty told me, gesturing at the creased piece of paper in my hand.

“Whatever that thing is, all these sightings. They ain’t helping things”.

All those sightings were an open secret among Black Fork friends and families only, until the report about Stu Sievwright ran in The Greymouth Star. Stu was from a small town on the Severn called Newport, just north of Cardiff. He had only been at Black Fork a couple of months, a contractor brought in to do some carpentry work in the mine. He was nearing the end of a three week contract, raising some cash to finance his travels around the country, when Black Fork went up.

Now the Star was carrying a report quoting an old school friend of Stu’s who reported seeing him in Stu’s local pub back in Newport. The man had approached Stu, who drained his pint, seemingly unhappy at the intrusion, put on his coat and left the pub without uttering a word.

The report wasn’t written in a sensationalist fashion, just a faraway anecdote from a Welshman trying to make sense of the death of an old friend and the memories stirred up by a Stu lookalike turning up in his local.

Here on the Coast however, it unsettled folk. A rift had already emerged among the families as they disagreed over whether to sue the bankrupt mine owners for a better compensation pay-out for the victims’ families.

Then there was the recovery of the bodies. A plan had been drawn up, but it involved the drilling of a new tunnel down into the mine and the use of some expensive equipment to make it safe for recovery experts to enter. The price tag associated with that lot was in the millions. No one wanted to pay. To make matters worse, the mayor, who had traded polyester shirts for tailored suits on the back of the media attention he’d been getting, had started talking about leaving the miners to rest where they lay. We all saw that as a betrayal. We wanted our boys out.

So against all of that, talk of dead miners being spotted alive and well was considered disrespectful. The families closed ranks, banned gossip about such things. But the seed had been planted, which led to Bette calling the meeting over at her place.

And there we sat now, Bette, Monty, myself and Wiremu Archer, the 23 year-old miner who was getting a root canal that Friday afternoon in Wellington when he should have been down the mine. It was Wiremu who had brought the yellow oxygen tanks that sat in Bette’s hallway. The rest of the gear was in the boot of his car. The rain hadn’t let up but that wasn’t going to dissuade us.

I looked at Bette, her face lined and drawn from the stress of the last six months. Her husband John had gone to bed. He didn’t want any part of this. Bette put the stained tea towel aside and held out her hands, palms up. We held each other’s hands over the square table and bowed our heads. Bette was the one of among us and even she was only a casual churchgoer. But we mumbled the Lord’s Prayer together, the words returning to me with surprising ease. Afterwards she watched us leave from the kitchen door, a frail figure hunched against the frame.

We drove for what seemed a long time through the rain, the perished windscreen wipers on Wiremu’s old Commodore complaining the whole way up the metal road to Black Fork.

The mine was, as we expected, in darkness, unguarded. After all, what was there left to steal? The receivers had stripped anything of value and loaded it onto trucks bound for Greymouth where the various bits and pieces were auctioned off to other mining companies – in secret. They even lifted the rail tracks, leaving dark straight ruts in the ground, two lines pointing at the mine’s mouth.

Wiremu slowed briefly to peruse the front gate, which was chained. A harsh light shone from the caged window of the Portacabin office that served as the miners’ lunch room. It illuminated the white board with the metal hooks on it that held the ID tags of the miners when they were underground.

The board was bare, unlike when the photographer from the Star had snapped it, with all the name tags still pinned up. The front page of the paper the following day had listed every man unaccounted for before the police had released any names. But that was okay, because back then it was a rescue we were looking at, not a recovery. Later that photo was harder to look at.

Beyond the portacabin was the gas extraction unit the engineers had used to try and turn the atmosphere in the mine inert so a rescue team could go in. It jutted out of the side of the bushy hill like a giant In-sink-erator unit. It had wheezed away for weeks after the second explosion before breaking down and lying silent until some parts could be flown in from Sydney. No team had ever gone in.

We drove further up the side road, as close as we could to the fenced-off ventilation shaft. In the explosion, the housing atop the shaft had blown clean off, the three inch bolts securing it snapping like kindling.

The manuka trees were singed black in a halo spreading out twenty metres around the shaft, which had been covered over with heavy steel sheets. Wiremu had a solution for that which involved digging into the ground at the side of the shaft and smashing through the concrete side with sledgehammers.

But that wasn’t my job. I was to wait at the car and keep an eye out for the headlights of approaching vehicles. Monty didn’t want anyone going down there after family members. Workmates was one thing. Coming across your own flesh and blood, after a mine explosion and the ravages of six months was something else entirely.

Monty opened the trunk of the Commodore and I helped him and Wiremu haul the oxygen tanks onto their backs, over their fluorescent safety jackets. We looked at each other in the dim glow of the Commodore’s tail lights.

“Remember, forty five minutes of air is all we have, and an hour on top of that to break through the shaft wall, so we’ll be back on top at a quarter to four,” said Monty looking at his watch.

“If anyone comes, tell them you’re –“

I put up my hand cutting him off.

“I’ve got it Mont,” I said.

He nodded. Wiremu rested his sledgehammer on the rusty wire holding it down for Monty to climb through. Then they were on the other side of the fence, moving slowly under the weight of the gear, approaching the ventilation shaft, their flashlights casting long pale pools of light in front of them. Monty turned and waved as Wiremu disappeared behind the shaft.

I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them when they were in the mine. A walkie talkie could give off a spark and trigger another explosion. The torches were specially sealed units designed for mine work.

The dull thuds of their hammer blows soon echoed across the scrubby hill like mini detonations. I sat on the passenger seat of the Commodore, the light rain wetting my knees, listening to every single sound the night made. The blows stopped after what seemed like a final concerted effort, then there was silence. They had broken through.

I imagined what it was like inside, the shaft walls scorched black, the acrid smell of incinerated coal. No one knew whether the escape ladder was intact, whether the shaft was even passable – no one had been into Black Fork since that day over six months ago.

Down across the valley, the lights of a car approached, accompanied a short time after by the throaty growl of a powerful engine. I stood up, watching the lights intently as the car progressed up the road towards the mine entrance.

I mentally shuffled through my half-baked cover stories as the car rose through the valley. But then it swerved off onto a wide patch of gravel that the Black Fork trucks used as a turning bay. The car sat idling for a minute, then with two almighty revs the driver dropped the clutch, floored the accelerator and proceeded to spin the car in tight loops, dust and tyre smoke spreading a haze over the turning bay as the car spun on the loose gravel. Finally, the car, a souped-up Falcon by the sound of it, fishtailed away towards the road and gaining purchase on the metal, motored noisily back towards town.

I breathed out slowly and chuckled to myself. It was the sort of thing Gavin used to do before he got into mining, when he was working for me servicing lawnmowers and weed whackers in the workshop. He’d go through three or four sets of tyres on the Courier a year, taking to the gravel the way he did.

“At least he didn’t have a wife, didn’t leave behind any kids,” Sarah had said to me one afternoon, as we drove back from the memorial service that all the politicians had flown in for. That had annoyed the hell out of me. But I hadn’t said anything. We’d driven home in silence and I went straight to bed, my back to her all through that sleepless night. She was right though. As I lay there I thought of Sunita Harris across the road and the twin girls she’d be rearing alone.

At 3 o’çlock I climbed over the fence and picked my way through the stunted manukas towards the shaft. I knelt down in the muddy pit Monty and Wiremu had dug beside the airshaft and looked at the gaping black hole they had smashed in the concrete. I leaned close to the hole and listened intently.

Below, far off, I could hear the sledgehammers at work, Wiremu and Monty presumably clearing their way along the mine floor. A damp, stale air seeped from the hole in the concrete and for a moment I thought I smelled death. I recoiled from the hole sucking in the cold night air. I went back to the car to watch for headlights, like I’d been told to.

Exactly one hour and forty three minutes after Monty and Wiremu left the car, I saw the torch lights again and slumped back against the car seat, relieved. Wiremu and Monty climbed back over the fence and I helped them with the oxygen tanks, which were lighter now. Wiremu’s sledgehammer had broken off at the neck.

Monty handed me a yellow miner’s hat that was coated in coal dust.

“That’s his? Gavin’s?” I asked.

“There’s no telling,” said Mont between swigs of water from his battered metal flask.

“What did you see?”

Wiremu threw off his safety jacket and leaned on the Commodore’s bonnet.

“There’s nothing down there mate,” he said.

“What? What do you mean?” I asked. “Did you find them?”

“No,” said Monty. “We covered all of the forks, every pathway to the tunnel entrance up to the portal. There’s no one there. There are no bodies.”

I looked at the miner’s hat in my hands.

“That can’t be,” I said. “Maybe they were vaporised.”

“We’d have found something, bits of bone, something,” said Monty. “Those boys aren’t down there, simple as that.”

I looked at Wiremu. He nodded.

“Don’t shit me,” I said.

“We’re not,” said Wiremu. “It’s like he says.”

I studied their blackened faces, these men I’d come to know well in the wake of tragedy. I was waiting for a sign they were deceiving me, but they both met my stare.

“Don’t ask me to explain what the hell is going on here, but it is like those boys really did walk out of Black Fork,” said Monty.

We got back in the Commodore, Wiremu turned around on the gravel road and we headed back to town. On the way, at the bottom of the valley, the light on the miner’s helmet Monty had found winked on. It flickered for a second on the seat beside me, then faded out.

We debated what we would tell Bette.

“Her boy isn’t down there, none of them are. That’s what we tell her.”

And that’s what we did tell her.

Back in Bette’s kitchen I broke the news. I put the miner’s hat on the kitchen table and looked out through the steamed up window at the first stirrings of dawn. Bette put the jug on and we stood silently waiting for the water to boil.

“Where have they gone?” She asked no one in particular, excitement in her voice.

I shrugged. I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say. None of us could. Monty washed his hands in the sink, the black water swirling down the plug hole.

That morning, I opened the store for the first time in over six months. I forgot the security code on the alarm, it had been so long. The security firm sent a guy out to reset it. It was the same guy who had put in shifts guarding the front gate at Black Fork when the media were crawling all over the place and a few desperate parents and family were thinking about taking matters into their own hands and mounting a “rescue” themselves.

The mowers and chainsaws sat where I had left them, their sales stickers faded. On the notice board in the office was a group of photos pinned up. There were pictures of Gavin at the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and on the Heaphy Track. A tiki-tour of old haunts we had made last year when he had taken a rare break from Black Fork.

There were no more sightings, not of Gavin or Dean, Stu, the Robinson boy or any of the other eighteen souls who had perished in the mine. No more hand-delivered letters turned up in my mailbox.

As word spread through the families of Monty and Wiremu’s visit to the mine, a sort of euphoria seemed to settle on the town. The grief lingered, but it was tinged with a strange kind of optimism. I think we all played out our own little daydreams, our boys out in the world, living free. In my dream, I saw Gavin pay for his gas and walk out onto that gas station forecourt, into the light. That was enough for me. That was enough to get through for me and for the others too – for the meantime anyway.

The official inquiry found that safety standards at Black Fork were adequate, but that because of the limited scale of the country’s mining industry, regulations weren’t as strict as in Aussie or the US. Monty, bruised by the questioning inthe inquiry but facing nothing in the way of criminal charges, headed back to Western Australia and a newly opened mine. Wiremu quit the mining game and went farming in Otago.

The In-sinker-ator was unplugged and replaced with 50,000 litres of concrete. The air shaft was filled in with rubble and sealed. Sensors were installed in the remaining bore holes to keep an eye on methane levels, but for all intents and purposes, the mine was a tomb to be left undisturbed despite the thousands of tonnes of quality hard coking coal locked up in the seam beneath.

That’s what the mayor had wanted and in the end, knowing what we had learned that night up at Black Fork, it was what we wanted too.

The starting off point

This story is fairly obviously inspired by the events at the Pike River mine on New Zealand’s remote West Coast, where 29 miners lost their lives in a lethal devastating mine explosion in November 2010. As devastating a tragedy as it was, what made matters worse for the families left behind was the fact that they couldn’t recover the bodies of their men – and at the time of writing, they still haven’t been able to mount a recovery mission.

 I found myself thinking a lot about those men and the weird limbo the families found themselves in with no closure, no chance to bury their loved ones. Without a body, many of them seemed to be unable to fully accept their men were gone. The story is about the miners families left behind and the lengths they will go to, to deal with the grief and loss they are experiencing.

The Man Who Couldn’t Ride a Bike

He came off the bus from Tsavo. He was dusty and sunburned and weighed down with a pack and a big black camera that hung from his neck.

For a while he wandered along the main road. He looked bewildered. Then he noticed the motorcycles lined up out front. He crossed the street, his boots kicking up red clouds of dust. He stopped outside the garage to take a photo of the sign. His camera clicked away.

“You need a taxi?” I asked.

He smiled at me. He looked tired.

“No, thank you. I’m looking for Martin.”

Martin. He could only have been here for one thing. I answered straight away.

“Martin isn’t here. Taxi is very cheap. Only one thousand shillings.”

He put up his hand.

“Can I wait for Martin?”

I nodded. He walked into the cool of the garage.

“Would you like some water?” I asked.

“Thank you.”

I fetched him a bottle of water from the refrigerator. I watched him from the back room. He paced around the garage, looking at the motorcycles. He paused to study the picture of Martin on the wall.

“Here’s the water,” I said.

He nodded gratefully, he drank thirstily. He sat at the desk, Martin’s ledger book open in front of him.

I sat down opposite him. I thought what English words I would use to tell him I could not repay the money. Then air compressor rattled to life.

“I’ve been up at Tsavo,” he said over the noise.

I nodded.

“Have you been there?”

I shook my head.

“Here, I’ll show you,” he said.

He took the big black camera and squinted at the screen on the back of it. He came around the desk and kneeled down beside me. He was sunburned and smelled of sweat.

He passed the heavy camera to me and I held it in my hands. On the screen pictures of Tsavo flicked past. There were beautiful photographs of black rhino and buffalo. There was even a masai lion, staring at the camera like it was ready to pounce.

“They are good,” I said passing back the camera.

He had come a long way, from a place on the other side of the world. I can’t remember its name. He seemed relaxed, patient. But we owed him money and that is what he was here for.

He looked around the garage at the slouching motorcycles.

“You know, I can’t even ride a bike,” he said.

He smiled at my reaction.

“It is true. I tried once, but I didn’t even pass the test. I fell off it!” He said.

Then he told the story in full, acting it out, revving the bike up, losing control of it, teetering over, the instructor screaming at him. He had to pay to fix the borrowed bike he’d dented.

I laughed at him. He chuckled to himself, sitting back down at the desk. A motorcycle spluttered along the road outside and he turned expectantly. He turned back.

“That’s why I invested in Martin,” he said.

“He is doing something here that I never in a million years could.”

I looked up at the picture of Martin. It was taken for the people at the loan company in Nairobi. They put it on the internet, where the man in front of me saw it and sent us the money for Martin to buy two more motorcycles.

“Martin died,” I said.

He looked at me and leaned in silently over Martin’s carefully kept books.

“Three months ago. There was an accident. He was carrying wood on his bike. It was too big. A foolish thing to do.”

I shrugged, drained.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Do you have children?”

“We weren’t blessed” I said.

Then I began to weep. He put out his hand but I got up, knocking the chair over. I went into the back room and covered my face with my hands. I stayed there a long time, tears wetting my palms. I heard him pacing around outside.

Finally I calmed myself. I wiped my face with my dress and turned back to the garage. His chair was pulled back, empty. I walked towards the light and the dusty main road. I glanced down at the desk. There were a pile of notes, crisp red shilling notes, neatly stacked on Martin’s ledger. There was enough money there to survive on for six months, a year maybe for a woman living alone.

Out on the main road, the red dust cloud started to clear. The bus to Nairobi wheezed and strained as it drew away down the road, until there was just the sound of the wind and the familiar hiss of the air compressor.

 The starting off point…

Yet another creative writing exercise. We had to write a story choosing one image from a series as the starting point. I chose an image of a black woman looking at her reflection in the wing mirror of a scooter. There was a dusty road behind her. The day I wrote it I had put some more money into Kiva.org, a micro-financing website where you can invest small amounts of money in fledgling entrepreneurs in the developing world. I put $25 into a scooter business run by a man in Kenya. Those were the two elements and The Man Who Couldn’t Ride a Bike is the result.

Facing Zero

“Well, it worked. “ Ed said to himself, lowering the front feet of the drinks machine carefully back onto the linoleum. The aluminum can tumbled through its innards clattering into the delivery chute.

Ed leaned against the machine, blood pulsing in his ears, that familiar tremble in his left temple. The red beast with its wavy strip of white up the side would come down on top of him one day, he feared, crushing him on the floor of the visitors’ room.

He imagined the cricket playing on the small TV in the corner as he submitted to the weight of three hundred cans of cold soda.

Maybe they’d fix the damn machine and grant him a more graceful exit in his bed, but he doubted it. In the meantime he’d take any freebies he could get.

He collected the cold Coke from the machine and looked across the room over the worn sofas and coffee tables weighed down with years-old copies of Reader’s Digest and Women’s Weekly. A tangle of cords streaked down from the TV to a video game console abandoned on the floor.

The hills visible through the window were darkening – the sun had moved around to the other side of the building. He cracked the soda and headed off up the corridor in search of its warmth.

It was quiet on the ward, the tail end of visiting time. Ed liked it this way. The nurses retreated behind the white swinging doors into their offices or whatever lay behind them. Patients weary from talking slipped into nap time. The usual bustle of meal time, medicine time, bath time, subdued for a while, like the siesta in Latin countries or the Islands.

He paused at the doorway of a room. The sign on the open door read “Stop! Keep patients well, use the gel!”. There was a little picture of a tube of disinfectant. Ed had never seen an actual tube of the stuff in all the time he had spent here.

All of the beds in the room were empty except for one concealed by a big sweeping plastic curtain designed to keep everything tidy and out of view in hospitals. There were people behind it, low murmurings of rapid conversation. Samoan, Ed thought. He caught the unmistakable whiff of fried chicken and smiled to himself. Meal time was less than an hour away.

Back in room C3, the sun cut diagonally across the sheets of the bed closest to the window. Just how he liked it. The rest of the beds were shrouded in plastic curtains. He could hear the faint sound of pop music leaking from headphones. He walked to the window, into the warmth, and put the can down on the window ledge.

Down below, cars travelled noiselessly along the road beyond the hospital entrance, which was flanked by a row of lean Norfolk pines. An ambulance pulled unhurriedly into the hospital car park – the numbers 601 painted on its roof for only birds, pilots and people in high-rise buildings to see.

A few rows over, Ed’s son Paul was leaning on the bonnet of his red XR6, his arms folded, talking to Julia who stood about a metre away from him, one foot on the raised grass verge, the other on the asphalt, the heal of her foot knocking rhythmically against the curb.

Ed noticed two things. His son’s baldness was really starting to advance; the retreat from his forehead had joined up with the crown. At eye level he still appeared to have a good head of hair. From up here, he looked to have a few years left before he’d have to shear the remains of his blonde locks off and go for one of those designer close shaves that had become so popular among balding men.

The other thing he noticed was the obvious tension in the car park. Julia’s restless foot, her stiffly folded arms, the slip of cream hospital-issue paper poking out beyond her left elbow, folded, but its contents obviously divulged.

She was doing all the talking, Paul just listened, his eyes masked behind those wrap-around sunglasses he liked to wear, his head tilted at the yellow double lines on the asphalt at Julia’s feet.

Ed sighed. There’d been plenty of these car park conversations, none of which he had been involved in. On the ward it was brave faces and smiles, down in the car park the grown-ups talked serious talk and made serious decisions.

Ed stepped back from the window until the backs of his knees nudged the easy chair he knew would be there. He sat down, the springs wheezing at his weight. From this angle the sun was directly on his face, a wispy corona dazzling him. He closed his eyes soaking in its energy.

He didn’t hear the soft rubber of the tiny wheels coasting up behind him. The first he knew she was there was the warm little hand on his arm and her shallow breath on his skin. He pretended to sleep, alert to her there, waiting for her patience to disperse. She tapped Ed on the arm.

“Popsie. Popsie.” She whispered sharply, tugging at the button on the arm of Ed’s short sleeve shirt. Ed pretended to stir, as though from a full night’s sleep. He looked at the girl then rubbed his eyes theatrically.

“Who are you?” He asked.

She grinned and ignored him, attempting to climb onto his knee, a thick book under one frail arm. He hoisted her up.

“What have you got there?”

“A book,” she said.

“Really, what’s it about?”

She positioned the book on her tiny knees, upside down at first then right way up after a bit of awkward repositioning. “In the Footsteps of the Dinosaurs”, read the cover, which was dominated by a picture of a T-Rex baring its teeth at a pterodactyl hovering overhead looking equally as angry.

“In awesome 3D!” The cover concluded.

“Well well, where’d you get this?”

“Mum and dad,” she said, lifting the heavy cover. On the inside cover, in a sleeve, were a pair of glasses – the sort of fold-out cardboard ones with red and blue lenses he used to wear at the B-movies they showed in 3D back in the fifties.

Ed unfolded the glasses and fitted them over Sarah’s eyes, the square lenses resting on her small bump of a nose. She flicked through the pages, gasping as each turn revealed some fierce new prehistoric creature, leaning this way and that to enhance the 3D effect.

She lingered on the pages showing the gentle giants, their mouths stuffed with foliage as they ambled through jungle landscapes. The pictures were all blurry to Ed, printed that way to create the 3D look with the glasses on. When Sarah had run out of pages, she closed the book and leaned back against Ed’s chest forcing him to squint in the sun.

Seeming to sense this, she took the glasses off and twisting around, reached up to place them over Ed’s eyes. A cardboard arm stabbed him in the nose, then the eye, but the glasses soon edged into place. The sky beyond the ward window turned a deep blue tinged with red. The sun hovered, a cyan ball with a blood-red halo. Ed stared at it.

“That up there is the brightest thing you’ll ever see,” he said.

“The sun?”

“Yeah the sun. But I saw something brighter once, just once.”

“What was it?”

“It blew up the sky.”

“It blowed up the sky?”

“Yeah.”

“Bigger than the sun?”

“It ate the sky for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Sarah peered up at him frowning thoughtfully, then leaned around and looked at the sun through her fingers. She said something else, but Ed didn’t answer, he didn’t hear her.

He was back on the deck of HMNZS Rotoiti. He could feel the warm sea breeze, the slow pitching of the broad deck which was hot beneath his sandaled feet. He was squatting, all of them were, in their denim coveralls looking towards Christmas Island which was just a little grey smudge on the horizon.

He held a broken sliver of welder’s glass in his hand. They’d run out of observation glasses before Ed had come up on deck and not wanting to miss out, he’d taken the tinted glass from the engineer’s workshop and broken it in half in his folded bed sheets so he and his bunkmate could share it. He looked at the sun high overhead. It was a murky blue ball through the glass. He hoped the glass would be dark enough for his purpose.

“Minus 60,” a hollow voice said over the tannoy. The men on the deck shifted nervously as they took their final positions, adjusting the black-lensed goggles and the white masks over their faces.

Behind them, on the ship’s superstructure, the watertight doors were slammed shut as the rest of the crew retreated below deck to observe through the portholes.

Ed imagined the furious final preparations being made on the British command ship hundreds of kilometers away on the other side of the island, the racket of instructions being issued from the blacked-out bridge, last minute checks being carried out.

“Minus 30, final positions,” the speaker crackled. On the Rotoiti all was silent and still, the sailors huddled together in lines across the deck. Ed fingered the sharp edge of the glass, balancing himself with one palm outstretched on the steel beneath him.

At minus 15, Ed could sense the welled-up anticipation in the men. For most of them, they were seconds away from the most spectacular thing they would experience in their service careers, if not their lives.

The countdown started, the distorted voice coming out calmly through the tannoy.

“10, 9, 8, 7…”

Ed took a series of short breathes and raised the glass a foot before his face.

“6, 5, 4, 3, 2 -”

At that moment Ed lost his balance and tilted forward. The glass slipped out of his hand and clattered to the deck.

“Zero!”

Ed put his hand up instinctively, flinching as though awaiting a savage blow. An overwhelming white flash blinded him. Through his fingers he could see his bones clearly defined against his flesh, just like in an x-ray.

It was as though he had emerged from a dark room into dazzling sunlight. He felt intense heat on his face as he held his breath, struggling to recover from the shock.

As his sight began to return he glimpsed for the first time, drained of colour, a massive plume of gasses racing up where Christmas Island must be. Later, they told him the cloud was tinged violet. But all Ed saw was drained of colour, a white glow that was the most overpowering thing he had ever witnessed.

A few seconds later a deep rumbling, like distant thunder, shuddered through the ship and the cloud just kept rocketing up as though it would break through the heavens themselves.

There was excited chatter among the men as Ed sat back on the deck stunned, looking at his hand which was gradually starting to regain its colour. Someone patted him on the back, just who, he wasn’t sure, for he couldn’t make out anyone’s features with everyone masked and goggled.

“Well, it worked,” Ed managed and the man nodded in agreement at the mushroom cloud stretching up over the side of the gunmetal grey deck.

When Ed awoke the glasses were crooked on his face and Sarah was sitting on the window sill looking down into the car park. He took off the glasses and pushed himself up out of the chair. Sarah’s parents were both now resting on the bonnet of Paul’s car, Julia’s head on Paul’s shoulder.

Sarah looked up at Ed. Her eyes looked tired.

“Time for you to rest little girl,” said Ed, pausing as he noticed a small drop of blood on the windowsill, as red as the can of Coke.

Sarah had knocked out the tube on her hand which was connected to the drip on its little metal frame which she’d rolled up hard against Ed’s chair. He took her small hand and eased the needle back into place. She was so used to this she didn’t make a sound.

He took a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and dabbed at the drop forming on the back of her hand.

“There, good as new. Let’s get you back into bed, nap time.”

Ed took his granddaughter up and carried her to the bed. The sun was lingering at the end of the bed now. He laid her down on the white sheets and pulled the blanket up over her, resting her drip arm carefully on top. Sarah lay propped up on the pillows, quiet.

For the first time in a few visits Ed reacquainted himself with the effects of the cancer ravaging her little body. Her skin was tight over her skull, her face pale, dark around the eyes. Her once beautiful hair was gone, her head always wrapped in a scarf to match her pyjamas.

Her body was thin and fragile floating in her pink pyjamas. The girl had seen more drugs pumped into her in the last six months than most people would in a lifetime.

Ed and everyone else who was part of Operation Grapple thought they were pretty special. After all, how many people get to see a nuke go up? But little did Ed know back in ’57 what it would mean for him and the family he would have.

As the Rotoiti had motored around the Pacific in the wake of the successful test, the sailors, including Ed, had drank and showered in rainwater collected on the voyage and breathed in the irradiated remnants of what had torn the air apart over Christmas Island.

It wasn’t until the 70s, when Ed was long out of the service but a frequent diner at the RSA, that he and his old navy buddies started to twig that they’d brought something back from the Pacific greater than the memories they’d long entertained their friends with.

Cellular abnormalities, rogue cells, translocations – Ed didn’t understand the terms his cancer-ridded naval friends had been researching as they mounted a case for compensation, something many down at the RSA saw as a betrayal of the service.

But Ed had felt the knife as they cut bits and pieces out of him over the years and diagnosed malignant this, benign that. The pain stayed with him long after the operations and after most of his friends who had been part of Grapple were seen off with full honours.

But more painful was the realisation that Grapple’s legacy wouldn’t die with him and his remaining friends.

Paul and Julia appeared at the ward door and Ed put a finger to his mouth. Sarah squirmed onto her side sleepily and Ed delicately adjusted the drip. The three of them stood around the bed looking at the girl.

Paul held the cream piece of paper. Julia’s eyes were puffy, but she grasped Paul’s hand tightly. They would talk about the letter from the doctor later. But Ed already knew what the result was. He left them there and headed for the door and the long corridor to the visitors’ room. He was sure they could all do with a nice cold soda.

The starting off point…

 I was reading a lot about veterans who witnessed nuclear tests in the 1950s taking legal action against the British Government to win compensation – and recognition – for the lingering effects of the radiation they were exposed to. The most tragic cases are when genetic defects passed down from vets to their children and grandchildren become apparent. This is about the legacy of the nuke testing that went on, the scale of which I don’t think many people realise…

Five go to Elysian Fields

“I think here is a good place for lunch,” said Julian, lowering his satchel to the ground, his eyes locked on the descending track ahead. He’d stopped abruptly on the track, his siblings piling up behind him.

“Good! I’m famished,” said George, oblivious to Julian’s sudden hesitancy.

Anne dutifully put down the hamper and began spreading out the picnic blanket. Dick was sitting down undoing the long laces on his mossy hiking boots. Timmy sat panting happily, watching Anne remove the carefully wrapped sandwiches and bottles of lemonade from the hamper and lay them out on the blanket.

They’d walked all day. The Elysian Fields seemed to stretch on forever. The beauty was overwhelming, crystal-clear streams ran off the mountains and gurgled past carving up the gentle plains. Mossy beds lay underfoot and the blissful meadows sang with birds and were full of golden flowers.

Finally they’d come to the ocean, a familiar place for these island dwellers. Here the stony track through the meadow petered out. The spot from the brow gave a commanding view of the ocean and the jagged coast. Far below, they could see the dark entrances to the catacombs, soundless waves frothing at the waterline beneath the blackened caves.

Just off the path, an ancient sign, covered almost completely in moss read “Journey’s End”. Its carved pointer showed the goat’s track that descended down into the bay, away from the safety of the fields and into the unknown where Julian knew he had to go.

They ate hungrily, sprawled on the tartan blanket, as they always did after a long hike. They talked about past adventures, the time on Mystery Moor when George lost her temper and stormed away from them nearly losing herself in the beguiling rocky landscape.

The drama at Smuggler’s Top, where Julian and Dick had to race to the lighthouse to radio the mainland so the criminals wouldn’t get away. So many adventures shared. So many still to come.

A bicycle trip was planned, this time around Cornwall and they discussed what hikes they would do in Wales in the holidays when they were all back from boarding school, together again, brothers and sisters happiest in each others company.

They fed their crusts to Timmy and after a while, their bellies full, they lay back in the grass quietly and dozed, the occasional bee humming harmlessly by.

Julian dreamt of Kirrin Island, a hazy vision of sheep-studded hills and the smoky cottage fire and eventually, yes, the gravel track where the Landrover went over. He lived it again, the rigid frame of the Landrover fishtailing them tipping over the track, the jolt as it left the lip of the cliff and fell. His brothers and sisters clung on around him, a collective yell. He remembered looking at the back of Uncle Quentin’s head, and the dark sea through the windscreen below.

There was a stunning flash, followed instantly by a crack of thunder and the brittle tinkle of shattering glass. Julian opened his eyes with a start and looked at the dark sky above. He lept to his feet and looked at Anne, the shattered lemonade bottle beneath her feet, foamy suds fading into the stony ground around her sandals.

“Careful, Anne,” he said to his sister, who was beginning to well with tears.

“Don’t cut yourself, here give me your hand.”

Anne went to him and he stroked her hair out of her eyes and wiped her cheeks with his palms.

The thunder peeled away across the sea till there was silence again. Dick was still lying in the grass, the brutal outburst from the heavens hadn’t moved him.

“Des Lebens als Weiser mich freun, Und wie im Elysium sein”. He said.

“Something from your German class?” asked Julian, his nerves settling.

“Its from the Magic Flute,” said Dick, lifting himself onto his elbow, squinting into the growing breeze.

“I think it means, enjoy life as a wiseman, I feel like I’m in Elysium”.

“How strange,” said George. “What made you think of it?”

Dick shrugged.

“I suppose I just picked it up from Mr Schiller”.

Julian looked down into the bay, at the fathomless ocean dashing itself against the jagged cliffs. Inwardly he sighed and shivered in the cold. He knew he must go. He picked up his satchel.

“No!” Dick stood up.

“I have to Dick. You are in charge now.”

Dick shook his head firmly.

“We’ll go together, like we always do.”

Julian looked at his brother, trying to control the pride and love building up.

George got to her feet and put her hands on her hips defiantly.

“Yes, you aren’t having an adventure all to yourself. Anne, pack up the hamper, we are going.”

Julian smiled and sat back down silently as Anne packed everything away. Then the five of them descended the goat track, down towards the catacombs.

The starting off point…

This story was the product of another creative writing class exercise. We were asked to reveal a secret – and write a story based on the secret of another class member. The piece of paper I selected out of the bag read “I secretly love the writing of Enid Blyton, particularly Famous Five”. I was delighted with that. I’m a massive Famous Five fan, but Enid sort of tapped out the scenarios for the gang of five… so I took them to the other side…

Mahogany Birds

I was tired and numb and in that state long road trips tend to leave you. Still she insisted I take the car to Washworld and clean it thoroughly.

“Vacuum the hell out of it,” she commanded as I stood on the drive way looking at our bags spread out on the tar seal, as though ready for a customs inspection.

I was tired with the early swell of a headache. But for now the overwhelming sensation was that of numbness. Numb from the dead silence that had rolled like a fog over most of the East Cape, accompanying us all the way up Highway 2 and the length of Highway 1. Numb too from thinking about the passengers and trying to imagine what she was thinking about the passengers. Did we really leave them behind on the side of that pot-holed road at Otamaroa Bay or had they hung on, like Max Caddy clinging bloody knuckled to the bottom of the Buick in Cape Fear? The question surely was in both of our minds.

The front door clicked shut as her tanned back disappeared behind frosted glass. There was nothing else to do. I’d take her precious car to Washworld, empty the glove box of gold coins, rent high-pressure hoses, steam and wax at a dollar a minute and purge the awful memory of the passengers. As I slid into the driver’s seat, a needle of pain shot from temple to temple, punishment for such deluded thinking.

The forecourt at Washworld was nearly empty, but the wet concrete shone purple and green with the oily detergent left by motorists recently departed. I picked up the spray gun by its slimy handle and fed some change into the wash ‘n wax. In the bay next door an athletic mother stretched over the bonnet of a dusty Pajero, lathering soap over the windscreen. I could tell she was a mother by her awkward, hurried washing technique and by the “baby on board” sign suctioned to the Pajero’s back window.

From behind the four-wheel-drive emerged a blonde-haired girl, her head level with the vehicle’s bumper. She wore a pink t-shirt that stretched to her knees and her bump of a nose was mildly sun-burnt.

Spray from the high-pressure gun drummed the roof of the Audi as I looked through the rivulets running down the window at the map book left open on the passenger seat, open on the page for Gisborne – the place where we picked up the passengers. Yellow and red lines to signify streets, pale green topography meeting a gentle curve of blue.

It all looked so innocuous on paper, so straightforward and logical. Our plan had been to spend the lazy days between Christmas and the New Year at her family’s bach with Kate and Graham, her sister and brother-in-law. As the bach was accommodating other visitors, we rented a cottage a short distance inland. The steep-roofed house was set on a quiet block of land dominated by big, old pine trees that sighed in the breeze.

It was a charming little place, full of mismatched furniture, the woodwork of a proud handyman and a coating of dust suggesting it hadn’t been occupied in some time. We

unpacked and headed down the road to the bach.

The waves rolled up Wainui beach in uneven sets the local surfers nevertheless seemed to read with great accuracy. The roar of the ocean was loud in the bach, a dilapidated three room structure. We walked along the water line, looked at the large pit of a sperm whale’s grave, played cricket with the locals. Teenage life guards zigzagged across the damp sand on quad bikes.

The bach received a stream of visitors, locals coming to talk about fish-smoking techniques or the problems caused by coastal erosion. There were sun-bleached paperbacks strewn about the place, flippers and masks and surf boards all over the lawn and in the bathroom, a faded map of the world that had the U.S.S.R. dominating its middle.

As the sun was setting I went out on the inflatable boat with Graham. We skipped over the gently rolling sea to a white buoy where he asked me to haul up the crayfish pot.

I could barely lift the thing it was so heavy. Six crayfish flapped around inside the cage amid the debris of a partially eaten mullet.

We returned to the cottage and though I felt like sitting up and chatting, the way we used to, sharing a bottle of wine, her legs propped up across mine, she wasn’t in the mood. She was too tired to make love, though the setting was certainly romantic enough. We slept on the mezzanine, the house ticking around us as it cooled down.

The next morning we were up early. Graham’s catch of the previous day was being served early at the bach so we loaded the car and headed once again down the gravel road.

We were unloading the car at the beach when she let out a scream and jumped back from the open boot. I looked up surprised and went around to the back of the car where she was standing, with a look of horror on her face. In the boot were dozens of tiny brown creatures, shooting in every direction, bumping into each other, running over each other. They disappeared down the sides of the boot carpet, wriggled behind plastic trim, squeezed their sleek bodies into the slit between the back seats. Cockroaches. Dozens of them had been there. Now, with a few exceptions they were all gone, hidden. She was suddenly beside me, her sandal in her hand hammering at the few laggards that remained. She swore as she stamped at them.

“How the hell did they get in there!”

She brought the sandal down, pulverising one of them. A pulp of creamy green guts smeared across the carpet. She screamed, furious and threw the sandal down the driveway. She stamped away from the car, wiping her hands against her shorts. I looked into the boot silently, replaying in my head that bizarre sight – all those bodies shooting around like kids in a playground. It was bizarre.

How the hell did they get in there?

“Oh Jesus,” she said from behind me. She was standing there holding the body board bag by her fingertips.

“The thing’s full of cockroaches!”

She dropped it. Brown bodies burrowed into the grass all around.

The body board bag. A slideshow of images rolled past in my mind – unloading the car last night, draping towels over the washing line, leaning the body board bag against the big pine tree by the house. The expression on her face told me she’d seen the same show. She looked at me, indignant, her eyebrows scrunched together, her small lips curled back from her teeth.

“I didn’t…know.” I said.

“How much effort would it have taken to put the thing inside!”

“I’ll take care of it.”

She stamped off around the house.

I spent a couple of hours hunting for cockroaches, but they had the upper hand in this murderous game of hide and seek. I looked up to see her leaning against the bonnet, arms folded, looking at me.

“Karen found a cockroach on the kitchen bench. They’ve never had cockroaches here. Not in 25 years,” she said.

The elderly man met me at the front door of the shop.

“Mahogany birds,” he said casting his eyes over the Audi.

I gave a hollow laugh, trying to hide my confusion, then simply, pathetically said, “pardon?”

“Kate rang ahead, told me about your wee problem with the roaches.”

He held an orange can in is hand, weighing it up as though it were a hand grenade. I soon realised it was exactly that.

“They’re Gisborne roaches. Our own variety, smaller than the German and American kinds. They thrive in this climate.”

He held up the can.

Kevin was his name and he sold all sorts of things in his immaculate hardware store. He pulled the pin on his grenade and threw it into the foot well of the car, slamming the door shut. Then he proceeded to tell me everything he knew about cockroaches – how they were nine times as resistant to radiation as humans, could live for weeks after being decapitated and contrary to popular belief, were quite clean creatures.

Across the road from the hardware store, beyond sticky tar seal, lush vines stretched in perfect rows into the distance. As the toxic gas spread through the car, I wandered among the vines, checking my Blackberry occasionally because the reception was good.

Back at the car, there wasn’t a cockroach in sight. Kevin had hung a coconut-scented air freshener from the rear view mirror to try and disguise the rubbery smell of the insect bomb.

Before the board bag incident we hadn’t seen a single cockroach. Now they were everywhere at the cottage, peeking out from under the stove, hiding behind the toilet bowl in the outhouse, walking across the walls with a sluggish patter that suggested they’d grown complacent in their kingdom, seldom visited by humans.

That night I lay awake in the dark. She lay beside me, her breathing muffled by the duvet she’d pulled protectively around her neck. She’d turned away from me the moment I’d gotten into bed.

A thousand tiny hearts beat away silently behind the particle board centimeters from our heads. It was my fault. I’d left the bag carrying our boards leaning against the tall pine tree.

So why couldn’t I just say sorry?

We set off the next day, a day earlier than planned. The bomb seemed to have done its job. We left the rent money in the cottage’s electricity box along with a note informing the owners of the infestation. We pulled onto Highway 35 and headed north.

In our haste to beat the southern motorway crawl out of Auckland I’d forgotten to pick up my bulging wallet of CDs. The only soundtrack to this holiday was the disk already in the car, a solo effort by the guy from Pink Floyd – “miserable crap,” she called it.

“I awoke in a fever. The bedclothes were all soaked in sweat. She said, ‘you’ve been having a nightmare and it’s not over yet.’”

For some reason the music calmed me.

A brief detour to Whangara. No sign of Paikea there. The marae was empty, the whole place felt desolate. On to Tolaga Bay, a silent stroll down a very long concrete wharf. The road swung inland through rolling green fields that hid the ocean.

We were approaching Te Puia Springs when she yelped and took her hands off the steering wheel. A wriggling body slid down the wheel into her lap. I lunged for the wheel as she slammed on the brake. A skipping, rasping sound as the anti-skid braking system kicked in and we veered to the left. The rear left wheel hit the gravel and the Audi pulled sideways, spinning the rear of the car around. It stopped with a wobble.

We looked at each other, both in shock. Silently, we got out of the car. No damage done. No one else on the road. The acrobatic cockroach was gone. I sat down in the driver’s seat and we carried on. Not a word was spoken.

Moving east now, the land rolled up to meet Mount Hikurangi. The landscape began to change, the lush bush gave way to dry scrub. There were boarded up shops, blockhouse pubs emblazoned with Lion Red livery and run-down weatherboard houses, satellite dishes perched atop them all.

On the Blaupunkt Floyd summed it up, in his out-of-tune croak.

“Dunroamin, duncarin, dunlivin…”

At Te Araroa, we very nearly didn’t make our planned visit to the cape lighthouse. She was slumped in the passenger seat, dozing, glancing down warily at her feet every few minutes. I’d come a long way to see this lighthouse, so I swung the car right at the beach and followed the gravel road.

Stones clattered in the wheel arches. In my rear view mirror, a big Holden raced up and to my amazement swung sideways on the narrow road and proceeded to overtake us. I looked across as the white Kingswood sailed past, a teenage Maori girl behind the wheel, her skinny arms positioned at ten to two. She looked at me with that defiance, Paikea herself. The car motored on pulling in front of us and kicking up dust, heading on determinedly towards the cape.

By the time we got there ourselves it was too late in the day to climb the 700 steps to the lighthouse. Instead I persuaded her to pose for a photo with it in the background. She didn’t stand still long enough. On the camera’s screen she was a blur of hair and skin. The lighthouse was in perfect focus.

We checked into the motel at Hick’s Bay. Bruce, the owner, had hats from all around the world pinned to the walls. We sat in silence looking out at the darkening bay, while locals leaned on the bar, laughed too loud and received regular top-ups from Bruce, who re-filled his own half-pint glass each time a patron ordered a round. She decided to go back to the room even though her meal hadn’t been served up yet. I sat there on my own listening to Bruce and his mates laughing and drinking.

The night was light, as though the Southern Aurora was visiting, though I knew well it wasn’t visible from this latitude. I walked across the property, in no hurry to return to the room. Some Japanese tourists were having a late meal on their verandah, foregoing Bruce’s well-done steaks for noodles eaten with chopsticks.

When I got to the door of our room, I saw my bag was sitting out on the doorstep. Surely she wasn’t kicking me out in the middle of the East Cape, with no means of getting home and no Blackberry coverage. I tried the door. It was open.

Thank God.

I’d barely crossed the threshold when her voice cut across the darkened room.

“Leave your bag outside. I found two in it, there may be more.”

I left the bag on the doorstep.

We were on the road early the next day, me driving again. The road was bad and required all of my concentration. But glancing down I noticed a brown body crawling around the foot well. I braked slowly, indicated and pulled over just before Otamaroa Bay. I scooped up the creature with the floor matt and shook it onto the road. The roach struggled to find purchase on the gravel then scrambled down into the ditch.

No more visits from the passengers, if indeed any remained. Te Kaha, then Opotiki, Ohope. A short stop for gas and a search for brown bodies. Whakatane, Te Puke, Highway 2, a crawl past a three car pile up, Highway 1, home.

The memory of the trip was dominated by the appearance of the passengers. But standing there at Washworld, I didn’t think of anything – cockroaches, Hick’s Bay, the gentle Wainui beach I’d probably never return to. I was mindlessly feeding two dollar coins into the wash ‘n wax machine when I realized the kid was watching me, standing there in her pink t-shirt, dirty water running between her feet and through a metal grid into the ground.

I drove the car forward to where a vacuum hose sat coiled like a sleeping snake. I pulled the dusty mats out of the car, expecting to see sleek bodies scuttling away. There wasn’t a passenger in sight. I opened the plastic foot well vents and peered in at the dark recesses. Brown bodies nestled there. I froze, my heart fluttering. Thankfully, they remained motionless. On closer inspection I could see that they were hollow, empty husks, surrounded by the debris of shattered body armour.

I reached in and took a roach between my thumb and fore finger. The shiny brown shell was intact, the wings clinging to its back, antennae erect, brittle legs extended. It had been eaten from the inside out. The passengers had turned on one another. A war had raged deep within the air vents of the Audi, a war as silent as the one fought on the outside. I held the vacuum cleaner up to the vent and the shells disappeared up the hose with a clatter. Still, I held the sole remaining roach up to the light and looked at it again.

Despite everything, I thought, there was a strange inevitability in its demise. It had survived the toxic bomb, our attempts to stamp it to death and all the same, ended up a meal for a hungry relative. It was designed to survive anything, even the loss of its own head. But it had died. Sometimes, that’s just how it is. Natural selection.

I realized I was a passenger too. I’d never been anything more. Something else had died on that long trip around the eastern seaboard and I grieved for it as inevitable as its passing was.

Just then the timer on the vacuum ran out and the suction died with a gasp. The four wheel drive rolled across the forecourt, the blonde-haired girl buckled safely in the back seat. She looked down at me through waxy beads of water and smiled. The diesel engine roared as the vehicle found a hole in the traffic and lurched forward over a speed hump.

I was left alone, crouched in the carpeted foot well of the Audi, the distant sounds of passing cars keeping to the speed limit and the stereo playing low, playing a familiar song.

That guy Pink was muttering again, some miserable crap about hitch hiking.

“And I have to admit, I don’t like it a bit, being left here beside this lonesome road.”

The starting off point…

This story is based loosely on an experience I had while on a road trip around the East Cape. It indeed involved an infestation of cockroaches, an Audi and a couple of near misses when sleek brown bodies appeared out of the air vents as we travelled around the coast…