Authors: Des Hunt
The arrivals corridor was empty when they left the plane. Most of the lights had been turned off, leaving only the dim glow of the late-afternoon sun. Even the ‘Welcome to Dunedin’ sign over the top of the stairs was dark.
The boy turned to his escort. ‘I’ll be okay now. I’ve done this before, you know.’
The hostess gave an automatic smile. ‘I know you have, Tyler. But I must hand you over to the person listed on my piece of paper.’
Tyler turned away. He’d had enough of her. The way she spoke like he was a child; how she selfishly made him wait in the plane until she’d finished her jobs; and now she was about to embarrass him in front of those waiting. He stomped down the stairs hoping she’d get the message and stay back. She didn’t: instead she moved so close she could have been holding his hand.
Only three people were waiting at the bottom of the stairs: a woman talking into a cellphone, flanked by two girls. One of the girls had a cardboard sign with ‘TYLER MATTHEWS’ neatly printed in felt-tip. It was the other girl who saw him first. She nudged the woman and said something. The woman broke into a welcoming smile and moved forward, snapping the phone shut.
‘Welcome, Tyler. We were getting a bit worried that you hadn’t made it.’ She turned to the hostess. ‘Hi, I’m Alice Brownley. I’ll take care of him from now on.’
The hostess checked the paper in her hand, smiled and said, ‘Thank you, Alice. I’m sure you won’t find him any trouble. He’s a real quiet one.’ She turned to the boy. ‘Bye, Tyler, be a good boy.’
To Tyler it sounded like they were talking about a dog. He felt like barking just to show he wasn’t such a ‘quiet one’ after all.
Alice stepped back and signalled the two girls forward. ‘Tyler, meet your companions for the week, Mandy and Hine.’
Mandy gave a brief smile and said, ‘Hi’. She could have been Tyler’s twin. They both had brownish-golden hair with grey-blue eyes, though Mandy was probably a bit slimmer and taller. She stared at the boy, clearly unimpressed by what she saw.
‘Hi, Tyler,’ said Hine, moving forward with her hand extended. Tyler shook it self-consciously. Hine’s smile lingered even as she stepped back. She was shorter than the boy, with dark hair and smiling brown eyes. She was more shapely than Mandy and, Tyler thought, more genuine in her welcome.
‘C’mon, we’d better get your gear,’ said Alice.
There was no problem finding his backpack. It was the only thing left on the carousel. While they waited for it to come round again Alice said, ‘It’s a shame you missed today, Tyler; we had fun.’ She turned to the two girls. ‘Didn’t we?’
‘Yes,’ replied Hine. Mandy just nodded.
‘How do you feel?’ Alice asked. ‘Are you over the flu now?’
‘Mostly,’ Tyler replied, ‘but I’ve still got a cough.’ As he moved forward to pick up his pack he coughed a couple of times as if to demonstrate.
The air outside the terminal was cold, with the clean smell of a frosty night on its way. There was no missing their vehicle. Apart from being the only one in the car park, the paint job gave it away. A group of penguins was painted on either side; a couple of seals lounged on the bonnet; and an albatross soared over the roof. The words ‘NATURE SOUTH’ were printed in bright green across the front and back—this was the magazine sponsoring their week-long holiday in New Zealand’s deep south.
Tyler was joining the tour late because he’d caught a cold just before school finished. Unfortunately his mother said it was the flu and insisted he stay in bed for three days. At the airport she had fussed around, feeding him all sorts of potions and buying extra clothes. At one stage he complained, ‘Mum, I’m only going to the South Island. It’s not the South Pole.’ To which she replied, ‘Down there it can get like the South Pole. Just you wait. Before this trip is over you’ll thank me for what I’m doing.’
The trip was Alice’s brainchild. Young readers from all over the country had been invited to take part in a competition. There were three categories: short story, poster and web page. Tyler won the web page, and he guessed Mandy was the writer and Hine the painter. Now that they were all together Alice had the role of chaperone, guide, journalist and photographer. The Christmas issue of
would publish their experiences.
It took a while to leave the airport as Alice had forgotten to swipe her parking ticket at the terminal and had to go back. The three youngsters sat silently in the car, Mandy in the front, with Tyler and Hine at opposite sides of the wide back seat. Eventually the silence became too much for Mandy. ‘You didn’t really miss much today, Tyler. The albatrosses were okay, but there weren’t any young ones.’
‘Last year’s young have just left,’ explained Hine, ‘and they don’t lay eggs for another month.’
‘We saw a stuffed chick in the museum,’ said Mandy. ‘That’s all the museum was. Stuffed animals, bones and fossils.’
‘That was only in one part,’ said Hine. ‘You liked the art exhibition and I liked the history part.’
‘Yeah, the art was okay,’ admitted Mandy, ‘but Alice didn’t like me going in there. “It’s not part of our itinerary, you know, Mandy.”’ Her imitation of Alice’s voice was both clever and rude.
Tyler spoke for the first time. ‘Did you see the plesiosaur fossil?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Mandy. ‘There were so many bones and things.’
‘Was that the big sea reptile?’ asked Hine.
‘Yes,’ said Tyler. ‘It’s one of the best in the world.’
‘What is?’ asked Alice climbing into the driver’s seat.
‘The plesiosaur fossil at the museum. I would’ve liked to see that.’
Alice looked at her watch, and then at the sky. ‘Well, I can’t take you back to the museum, but we might have enough time to look at a whale fossil. How will that do?’
‘Yes please,’ said Tyler with interest. Mandy turned to the two in the back, rolling her eyes and mouthing something that seemed like ‘Oh no! Not more boring bones.’ Hine gave a little smile and turned to look at Tyler, but said nothing.
The journey was silent with Alice concentrating on getting back to the main road and the others staring out the window. After passing through a small town they pulled onto a side road. Soon they were bumping along an unsealed surface
covered with white dust. ‘Lime,’ explained Alice. ‘This area is a major source of lime for the South Island. They use it as a fertiliser and to make cement. We’ll have to watch for trucks as they sometimes work twenty-four hours.’
Soon afterwards they turned a corner into a blaze of lights. Huge diggers were loading equally large trucks with creamywhite rocks. Behind the machines was a cliff of limestone, thirty or so metres high. ‘This is where the fossils come from,’ said Alice.
‘What fossils?’ asked Mandy. ‘The plesiosaur or whatever it was?’
‘No,’ said Tyler impatiently. ‘You wouldn’t have plesiosaur fossils and whale fossils in the same place. They’re separated by fifty million years.’
‘Are they?’ she said putting on her best bored voice. ‘That’s fascinating.’
A while later they stopped by a small shed. It was a lookout viewing the surrounding hills and river flats. Snow was glowing golden on the higher hills to the west where the sun had recently set. Already mist was settling in the valleys and smoke was curling out of chimneys. Leafless trees poked through the mist looking like upside-down witches’ brooms.
‘That’s beautiful,’ said Hine.
‘Yes,’ agreed Mandy, and it was obvious she meant it. Her face had softened and her eyes glistened. ‘It’s like out of a fairy tale.’
Tyler took a quick glance at the scene before turning to the large rocks forming the front of the lookout. They were crammed full of shell fossils with hundreds of different types. He took a small magnifying glass from his pocket, knelt and examined the fossils closely. They were only slightly different from what he would find on a modern beach. The rock wasn’t old at all—probably only a few million years or so…
He stopped his examination, aware that people were looking at him. He glanced up to see Mandy and Hine nudging each other and smiling. ‘Hey, we’ve got Inspector Gadget with us,’ said Mandy.
Hine laughed. ‘You found out what killed them yet?’
Tyler felt a twinge of anger. He hated it when people laughed at him, especially girls.
‘It helps me identify them.’ He climbed to his feet. ‘You can have a look if you want.’
‘No way,’ replied Mandy. ‘We’ve seen enough fossils for today.’
He shrugged and turned away.
Through the windows of the hut he saw the mammal fossils. There was the skull and bit of backbone from a whale plus a complete dolphin’s skeleton. It was the dolphin that attracted Tyler most. Even as a fossil, the smooth curves of the body were visible in the yellow rock. Tyler thought it was a shame the remains had been taken from the quarry. It would have been great to see the dolphin against the backdrop of the cliff he had seen earlier.
His thoughts were broken by shouting from behind the shed. ‘No, Richard! It is not my fault.’ It was Alice. She’d stayed at the car to make a phone call. ‘Yes, I know, but…Why should I? It is a very reasonable thing to expect…No! Don’t hang up on me…No, don’t! No…’ Then it sounded like the top of the car was being slapped. ‘Damn you! Damn you! Damn you!’
A while later she came over to the lookout. By then the scene was disappearing in the mist and darkness. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘It’s time we were going. There’s still an hour’s travel left.’
The car wheels skidded as she took off too fast for the dusty surface. She fishtailed down the road for a while
before slapping the steering wheel once and breathing deeply. The car slowed and gradually her passengers relaxed. Still, nobody spoke: the recent anger hung over the car like the mist and smoke in the valley they had just left.
They followed the Southern Scenic Route that hugs the coastline across the bottom of the South Island, passing through Balclutha and south into the sparsely populated district called the Catlins. The main town in this area was Owaka, with about 350 people, and the only places still open there as they drove through were the pub and the fish and chip shop.
Tyler’s tummy rumbled at the thought of food. ‘How much further is it, Alice?’
‘Yeah,’ added Mandy. ‘Can’t we stop here and get something?’
‘No. We’ve got to move on. It’s only another quarter hour or so. And Molly will have dinner ready for us, I’m sure.’
Further south they crossed an estuary with the rising moon reflected in a mirror-like surface. Alice turned off the main road shortly after the bridge and immediately they were on a narrow, dirt track. Ice in the potholes glistened in the headlights, and a couple of times the car seemed to slip sideways as they turned a corner.
Alice slowed to a crawl, turning each corner as if terrible danger lurked beyond; and it was probably that that saved them, for there was no warning of the approaching vehicle. Suddenly it was there, filling the road in front of them—a wall of blinding lights. Alice swung the wheel hard to the left,
forcing the car towards the fence. Her passengers braced for the crash that must surely come. Yet somehow the vehicle shot by without hitting them. Tyler had a glimpse of something dark in the shape of a ute and heard the roar of an exhaust as it shot round the bend and was gone.
The adrenaline hit only after the vehicle had passed. Alice lowered her head onto the steering wheel, taking in small, jerky breaths. The others sat in silent shock. The car was resting against a wire fence. Tyler tried to open his door but it was blocked. Hine opened hers and the two of them slid out. Cold air cut into their lungs and ice crunched beneath their feet. Alice and Mandy joined them.
‘I think you should be able to drive it out,’ said Tyler. ‘We might have to give it a push though.’
On the first attempt, Alice gave it too much gas, spraying mud and weeds everywhere without moving the car.
‘Less gas,’ yelled Tyler.
Hine added, ‘And Mandy, you can come and help too.’ Reluctantly Mandy took her hands from under her jumper and joined them at the back. This time the car slowly crept back onto the road.
Alice got out to check the damage finding little more than a few scratches. Climbing back in she said, ‘Let’s hurry up and find this place before something else comes along. Talk about maniacs on country roads.’
After a few kilometres they turned into a driveway beneath a sign saying WOOLSHED BACKPACKERS. The building beyond was dark except for lines of dim light showing between the curtains.
‘Here we are, kids. Your home for the next four nights.’
The kids remained silent. The scene was less than inviting. It reminded Tyler of the background to a computer game with ghosts and vampires. The surrounding paddocks were dotted with the skeletons of dead trees, deathly grey in the bright moonlight. Shadows of large, black beasts moved between the stumps. In the distance was the sea with the moon reflecting off heavy swells. Closer to the shore there were glowing patches of white where the waves crashed upon hidden rocks.
Even the woolshed looked uninviting. It was clad in grey wood that had never felt the painter’s brush, and rust was now the main colour of the roof. To one side were the broken-down pens that had once held the sheep waiting to be stripped of their woolly coats.
Then the door opened and the scene was lit with the warm glow of a roaring fire. A woman appeared, smiling and welcoming. ‘Come in! Come in by the fire. You can get your things later. You’ll freeze your bits off out there.’
The inside could have been a different building. The lanolin shine of the floor had been maintained even though the sheep had long gone. The walls were varnished macrocarpa forming a beautiful golden-red backdrop to the decorations that told of the building’s previous life: hand shears, woolsacks, stencils, sharpening tools, hand-pieces, and—in one corner—an old wool press converted into a bookcase.
‘Hiya,’ said the welcoming woman. ‘I’m Molly, and this old codger here is my better half, also known as Bill.’ Bill was sitting in an armchair by the fire. He raised his hand in a little wave. At his feet a huge black cat was stretched out on a sheepskin rug. Hine moved and sat by the cat to stroke it. The cat responded by lifting its paws so that she could rub its belly.
Molly chuckled. ‘And that lazy mouse-chaser is Poggles. If
you rub his tummy, you’ll have a friend for life.’ She turned to the other people in the room—a young couple sitting at a long trestle table, studying a guidebook in the light of a candle. ‘Over here we have our only other guests at the moment. Hans and Hilde are from Germany.’
The woman smiled. The man said, ‘Hello, I am Hans. This is my partner, Hilde.’
Mandy pointed to the candle. ‘Don’t you have electricity?’
‘Not at this particular moment,’ answered Molly. ‘It went out about ten minutes back. Someone must have slid off the road and taken out a power pole. In fact we were worried that it might have been you.’
‘It could easily have been,’ said Alice. ‘Some idiot forced us off the road, screaming along with the lights blazing on full.’
‘We get a bit of that around here at times,’ said Bill. ‘Mostly in the summer though.’
‘It might’ve been them that hit the pole,’ suggested Tyler.
‘Yeah! Now that’s a thought,’ said Alice wickedly. ‘Maybe wishes do come true.’
Molly chuckled. ‘Anyway it won’t get fixed till tomorrow, but that won’t make any difference to us. Your dinner is still warm and we have gas for cooking and hot water. Now you all go get your things while I get your dinner on the table. Just dump them in the corner in the meantime. I’ll show you the dormitories later.’
Dinner was a beef casserole with mashed potatoes, swedes and Brussels sprouts. Mandy didn’t want the greens and moaned that the swedes looked like vomit. Still, like the others, she soon had an empty plate and was enjoying apple crumble and ice cream for pudding.
After the meal, Molly sat beside them. ‘Right, now that your bellies are full, it’s time for a little ritual we have. All newcomers must talk about themselves, so that we know who they are and where they fit into this universe. So, who’s going to start?’
The three looked at each other. Eventually Hine said, ‘I will.’ Then after a pause, ‘I’m Hine Smith, aged twelve, and I come from a small town called Mohaka in the Hawkes Bay. I have six much older brothers, but no sisters.’
Molly laughed. ‘I can see why you’re called Hine then. Your parents must have been very pleased to have a girl.’
Hine smiled. ‘Yes they were. But I hardly remember my mother and father as they both died when I was little. I’ve been brought up by Auntie.’
‘What are your interests, dear?’
‘I like playing netball. Auntie and I are in the same team. And I love writing. I write whenever I can.’
Alice added, ‘Hine is here because she won the writing part of the competition. We’ll read her story one of these nights. It’s about the dolphins that I hope we’ll see at Porpoise Bay. It’s a lovely story.’
Mandy spoke next. ‘I’m Mandy Parker, also aged twelve, and I come from Dunedin. I have no brothers or sisters, but I do have a cat that I love. My father and mother have an antique shop that is real boring except for the paintings, which I like. Since we bought the shop I don’t play any sport, but I used to do gymnastics.’
‘And this is Mandy’s winning entry,’ added Alice, unfolding a large poster. ‘This will go out with the December edition along with Hine’s story and an article on this trip.’
The words across the top said ‘THIS OR THIS?’ Beneath the first ‘THIS’ was a lovely seashore scene glowing with bright sunshine. Baby seals were basking on the rocks,
penguins were sitting on nests, and dolphins played in the bay. Underneath the other ‘THIS’ was a mirror image of the same scene. However the sun was shaded by a large, black cloud and each of the animals was in peril: dogs were attacking the seals, stoats were stealing eggs from the penguins, and the dolphins were drowning in a net. It was a powerful message. Tyler was most impressed and also surprised—it didn’t fit with his image of Mandy at all.
‘Can we have this?’ asked Molly. ‘It would look good on the side of the wool press.’
‘That’s why I brought it,’ smiled Alice, handing it over.
‘Great,’ said Molly placing it to one side. ‘Now for the masculine touch. Who are you, young man?’
‘Ah, um, I’m Tyler Matthews. I’m twelve too. We live on a small block near Auckland. I’m the only child. Dad works in the city and Mum is a real estate agent. That’s about it, really.’
‘What sport do you play?’
Tyler shrugged. ‘None really. But I quite like running.’
‘Any other interests? What do you do during your spare time?’
‘Play computer games, mostly. Oh, and I’m interested in palaeontology.’
‘Pally what?’ asked Mandy rudely.
‘Palaeontology. It’s the study of fossils like those shells and bones we saw in the limestone rocks.’
Mandy rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, that boring stuff again.’ Molly gave her a sideways look but said nothing.
Alice said, ‘Tyler’s entry was a web page on the marine reptile fossils that are found in the Otago region. It’s now on our website and gets lots of hits.’
Hine said, ‘Now it’s your turn, Alice.’
‘Okay. I’m Alice Brownley, aged thirty-seven. Like Mandy,
I live in Dunedin. I used to be a primary school teacher before I became a journalist. I have been with
for three years now and am still enjoying it.’
‘Do you have a partner?’ asked Hine.
There was a pause before Alice answered. ‘Yes.’
‘His name is Richard, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ replied Alice biting her lip.
Molly gave the girls a stop-that-line-of-questioning frown, shaking her head slightly.
Mandy ignored it. ‘Do you have any children?’
Alice moved her hands over her mouth and mumbled ‘No’.
‘Do you want to have babies?’
Her hands started to shake. Tears formed and spilled from her eyes. ‘Yes,’ she whispered. Then she stood and ran from the room.
The group sat in shocked silence for a while. Molly was the first to move. She stood and leaned over the table towards Mandy. ‘You, young madam; you might be very clever with your pencil and paintbrush but you’ve got a lot to learn about people. And the place to start is to keep your big mouth shut. Then everybody will have a much better time while they’re here. You understand?’
Mandy stared at her defiantly for a moment, then she too burst into tears. ‘I didn’t mean to upset her. I only wanted to know.’
Molly straightened, sighing loudly. ‘Oh dear.’ Then, ‘Right, come on. I think it’s time for everyone to go to bed. We’re all showing signs of tiredness. Grab your gear and I’ll show you to your rooms. I’m sure we’ll all be much happier in the morning.’