Authors: Emily Barr
Copyright © 2008, Emily Barr
The right of Emily Barr to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means,with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.
Emily Barr has written columns and travel pieces for the
for several years, and her previous novels have all been critically acclaimed. She lives in the south of France with her husband and three children.
For James, Gabe, Seb and Lottie
Thanks to Harriet Evans, Emily Furniss and everyone else at Headline; Jonny Geller, Doug Kean, Carole Jackson and everybody at Curtis Brown. Thanks to Lisa McLean, Helen Stewart, Samantha Hand, Sylvie Bod, Bridget Guzek, Maria Gentile, Adam Barr, and Tansy Evans. And much love, as always, to James, Gabe, Seb and Lottie.
When I get out of the airport, I look around in wonder. I am on the other side of the world. I have never been so far from home. I could not get any further than this, unless I went into space.
The air is clear, and I take deep breaths. I am grateful to be off the plane, away from the hordes of strangers and the stale air. Nothing here looks particularly weird, but it feels odd. I am disconnected, disorientated. Two days ago I was in Spain. The day before that I was in France. It is confusing to be so far from everything that I know.
I look around for a taxi. I take the piece of paper out of my pocket, although I memorised her address long ago.
'I need somewhere to stay in Ponsonby,' I tell the driver.
He looks at me, and at my big rucksack. 'A hotel?' he asks. A backpackers? There's a backpackers in Ponsonby. Nice place, I've heard.'
I consider it for a moment. The days when I was too scared to stay in backpackers' accommodation are long gone, I decide.
'That would be perfect,' I tell him. I get in, and settle back. I am smiling, showing Auckland that I want to belong. I am a European backpacker, and I happily stay in hostels.
I will find her. This time it will all be different.
I breathe deeply in the cab. I have done everything I can to forget all the things that happened last year. I toss back my dark hair and pull at the hem of my dress, pulling it almost to my knees. Last year is the past. It is what brought me here. It is all a part of my story.
As the flat, green landscape passes by, I realise how much I have grown up. I was nobody, when this started. I was nothing. I used to hang around at home, in France, talking to my little brother. I used to lie back, in the sun, and wait. I waited and waited for something to happen.
'You have to make things happen,' Tom said to me, once. We were lying by the pool. I was trying to make him get me a drink. We had done nothing at all for days. 'They don't just happen by themselves.'
'How am I supposed to do that?' I asked him.
He shrugged and stretched out his arms and legs, like a starfish.
I knew he was right. In the end, I did make things happen.
I had an adventure, and it is still going on. Here I am, one year and ten months later, in New Zealand. I would never have imagined that the trail would lead me here.
Finally, I have the confidence to do my own thing. I know what I want, and I am going to stay in Ponsonby until I've got it. I am going to find her, and this time it's going to work out perfectly. This is just the beginning.
London, 31 October
It was Halloween, and a few people were dressed in stupid costumes. Everyone ignored them. I stood on the Northern Line, gripping a red pole and swaying in the familiar rush-hour crush, and I decided that I was going to start to make an effort. When Steve and I got together, we were starry-eyed 27-year-olds. Now we were close to forty, with nothing but a mortgaged flat to show for it.
It was natural, I decided, that we had fallen into a rut. I pictured a huge tractor ploughing a muddy field. There we were, Steve and me, tiny little figures struggling in an enormous earthen rut. He tried to give me a leg up, but I toppled back into the mud. He climbed on to my shoulders, but we overbalanced. My hair was covered in damp earth. We were stuck. This was what I thought, at least, on Halloween. My whole life was a rut. I was doing the job I had trained for, as a stopgap, sixteen years earlier, when people with English degrees who didn't want to go into the media did a PGCE as something to fall back on. I was bored with teaching, but I didn't know what else to do.
Someone lurched into me. 'Sorry,' I told him, without thinking.
A lot of other people I knew had babies. Maybe that was good, I thought. Perhaps it gave a relationship a new focus. Perhaps a baby gave a couple something to look at, other than each other. It certainly gave them something to talk about, endlessly. I didn't want a baby, though, and neither did Steve. What I wanted was a holiday. I was trying to work out whether I could arrange something as a surprise for Steve, whether he could take several weeks off work, and how far away we could get without flying. I was thinking of Italy, or Russia, or a great train trip like the Trans-Siberian. In the year since we'd both decided to stop air travel, we had been no further afield than Brighton. Although we'd often talked about taking off on the Eurostar and having romantic holidays centring on European stations with big clocks and well-dressed people, Steve seemed to be in the process of downgrading this summer's excursion to a weekend at Glastonbury.
I sighed as the doors opened and twenty-two more people forced themselves into the scrum. My shoulders were up against everyone else's, as usual. I blew the hair off my face and tried not to feel claustrophobic. I hated feeling that I had failed myself. The dreams I'd had, when I was young, had never included being jammed on to the Northern and Victoria Lines twice a day. They hadn't involved trying to ram D.H. Lawrence down the throats of unresponsive fifteen-year-olds, when everyone in the room — myself included — would rather be drinking, smoking and shagging. I was fed up with my life, and I was worried about my relationship, too. Last week, I'd put a lot of time and effort into seducing Steve. To my horror, it had been difficult. I'd had to force him into it, and before that we hadn't had sex for months. Tonight, I was going to try again.
Steve was the great love of my life. From the moment we met, we belonged together. He was a part of me. Over the years, we had been best friends, lovers, soulmates. We had always been equals. Now, suddenly, things felt wrong. We were distant, slightly wary of each other. I wondered whether we would split up. It was unthinkable. I wished we were married, because that would have made it harder for us to part. Neither of us had ever wanted marriage. We had been to so many of our friends' weddings that there had long ago ceased to be any attraction in having our own: we would have been forced either to re-enact a ceremony we had already been to many times over, or to be self-consciously different just for the hell of it. On top of that, I had been married before, for two sad years in my early twenties. I married my university boyfriend, feeling enormously grown up. My father paid for a registry office and a party in the upstairs room of a pub in the Lanes in Brighton. Within six months I could hardly bear to look at my husband. I had never fancied being a double divorcee. That was another reason why I had not married Steve.
The train pulled into my station and as I came out of the Tube, I decided, with a sudden fierce conviction, that I had to do everything I could to bring us close again. I would start that night, by putting on an ironic Halloween party for the two of us. We would get drunk, laugh, be silly, and remember why we were together. When I was drunk enough, I would steer the conversation to my insecurity, and to holidays and the fact that life was no longer as much fun as it ought to be. Actually, I was rubbish at playing games. I would have a drink and tell Steve exactly how I felt. Then it would be up to him.
It was a clean, crisp day, even in London. The air I breathed was impregnated with exhaust fumes, but I was used to that. Whenever I left the city, my lungs protested, scalded by fresh air. The sun had disappeared behind a tower block, low in the sky, but above me everything was blue and cloudless. My breath fogged in front of me, and the nip of incipient night was making my nose red and my fingertips numb. I threw fifty pence at the homeless boy on the pavement, aware of the pathetic nature of my token gesture, and wondering how he was going to get through the winter with a skimpy sleeping bag and a 50p coin. Then I forgot about him, and went to Waitrose.
There was always something soothing about Waitrose. That was a sad state of affairs, but it was true. It was its own world, where everything was clean and orderly. Instantly, I felt I could make things right.
If I could put on a good enough Halloween spread, then everything was going to work out the way I wanted it to. I dashed around, feeling harassed and trying to order my mind. In my anxiety, I filled a small trolley with a big pumpkin, several bags of crisps, two Pizza Express pizzas, two bottles of expensive champagne and a box of Belgian chocolates. Then, almost hysterical, I added an orange plastic tablecloth with witches on it, two novelty black pointed hats, and a pair of plastic champagne glasses with spiders on them. Not long ago, Steve would have loved something this kitsch. Drunken, ironic evenings were the sort of thing we used to do together, winding each other up to fever pitch, laughing and staying up all night. I contemplated face paints, but decided that I should stop short of making myself look mad. I would redo my make-up instead. I would put on some sexy underwear.
Years ago, on my thirtieth birthday, we had a party, just Steve and me. We had just bought our flat. He cooked dinner, and we drank and laughed and ate, and sat on our sofa with the curtains open and the lights off, and talked until it got light. I adored Steve. I had loved him passionately from the day I met him, and I was not letting him go.
I was excited when I got back to the flat. We lived on the top two floors of a large terraced house in Kentish Town. We had been there for years and years, since we were twenty-nine, and had watched our friends gradually having families and moving out to the suburbs and beyond, generally just before the second baby arrived. These days the only people I knew locally were shopkeepers, the barman at the local café, and a few neighbours.