At the airport, Kerry noticed a sign warning visitors to allow more time for their journeys on New Zealand roads. The sign included a picture of said roads, apparently drawn by a person with a partiality for Scalextric tracks made entirely from the curved parts.
‘A blatant exaggeration’ had been Kerry’s thought then. Two days later, on the hill heading over to Gabriel’s Bay, his thought was ‘What the infernal hell?’
What kind of sadist had decided this was suitable for vehicles? Kerry had motored over mountain passes in Europe with fewer and more manageable bends. The streets of Mumbai had put less demand on his driving skills. He’d felt safer descending into the Grand Canyon on the back of a mule that insisted on walking right near the path’s crumbling edge.
He considered pulling over for a breather, but on either side of the road was nothing but a tiny strip of gravel shrouded by forest that looked dense and unsettlingly primeval. Dinosaurs could indeed be dwelling within, happily unaware that they were supposed to have become extinct sixty-five million years ago.
That was probably why New Zealand had no snakes or tigers or, in fact, anything keen to poison and maim you. They’d all been killed off by something worse.
Get a grip, Kerry said to himself. New Zealand has no nasties because when the continents divided, its islands floated away carrying nothing but birds, leaving all the crocodiles, snakes and venomous hairy spiders in Australia, as if the two countries had made a bet and Australia had lost. Besides, it was too late for second thoughts. He was here now, and committed to a new job. He’d had his time to travel the world, put the past behind him, or at least in a place where it wouldn’t catch his eye too often and double him over with shame. Eighteen months had passed since the wedding-that-wasn’t. Seventeen months and twenty-three days, if you insisted. Seventeen months and twenty-three days trying to reclaim his sense of the man he was, the man he should be. Trying to make up for all those years of simply going along, unquestioning, sucked onwards in the slipstream of other people. Being, as Kerry reproached himself on an hourly basis, a twat.
The car’s radio yelped back into life, and Kerry yelped right along with it. He’d bought the station wagon at a place called Cheap Cars, which could not be accused of over-promising. It was a Japanese import, a model called a Fielder, which to Kerry had sounded reliable and sporty, despite it being fifteen years old and in a condition that pushed the boundaries of the word ‘used’. It was a necessarily no-frills purchase, as Kerry’s funds had been reduced by months of travel interspersed with sporadic bouts of poorly paid employment. The car came with air-conditioning that had already stopped working and a dual air-bag that Kerry hoped had not, considering that a crash on this benighted hill had to be inevitable. The radio had first picked up a concert programme and then switched mid-Mahler to a Christian station, on which a father was earnestly explaining blasphemy to his child. Kerry had fiddled but found nothing but static or ‘You know, Timmy, “gosh” is really just another way of saying “God” ’, and then left it hissing white noise because the hill had begun and he needed two hands on the wheel and all his concentration.
When his nerves stopped jangling, Kerry recognised the radio was now playing ‘Child in Time’. Deep Purple. Not the Christian station, then, thank Gosh. The song was a favourite of Kerry’s for its anthemic quality and its showcasing of lead singer Ian Gillan’s ability to wail. He was a fine wailer at the best of times, was Ian, but this was him at his virtuoso best. Just when you thought he’d hit his peak, he stepped it up a whole other octave.
And, Great Gosh Almighty! Here was the top of the hill! And what a view! As if ordered by Nature’s generals to retreat, the forest on both sides thinned and dropped away, revealing a stretch of rolling green dotted with trees and wound through by a glint of river. Kerry could see across the river an old-fashioned bridge, miniature scale at this height, and in the cleft of distant hills a slice of sea, a shifting sparkle of light all that delineated it from the bright blue sky.
Down there, over the bridge and before the sea, was Gabriel’s Bay. All the climbing was behind him, and the downward slope looked nowhere near as challenging. It helped that the forest had receded, though Kerry could see that the range continued along to his left, dark green and forbidding. The first settlers must surely have got to Gabriel’s Bay by boat, thought Kerry. Where, if they’d been sensible, they’d have stayed until the invention of modern earth-moving machinery made hacking a road over this satanic mound a viable option.
He gave thanks that the Gabriel’s Bay website proclaimed it a self-contained town, with a supermarket, two pubs, a petrol station and a doctor’s surgery. With luck, he would never need the latter, but nice to know it was there.
The trusty Fielder descended like a champ, positively luge-like on the bends. The Deep Purple song was still going. It was over ten minutes long, Kerry recalled. DJs must love songs like that.
‘Ahhh, ahhh, ahhh,’ sang Ian, and Kerry sang right along with him.
The road finally began to flatten out, the scrub on either side now making way for fences and the occasional gravel driveway that led to some hardy person’s farm. Kerry’s Northern Irish ancestors had been landowners, wealthy ones back in the day, with a big house and race horses and undoubtedly their very own bunch of bog-cutting peasants to flog. That was his mother’s line, the Irish Protestant Macfarlanes. Not to be confused with his father’s line, the Scottish Catholic Macfarlanes, though most people did indeed find this highly confusing. Your parents have the same last name, they’d ask? Kerry would confirm this, and if he didn’t know the person well, see if he could get a laugh by adding that it was the only thing his parents had in common. He could only try this with strangers because it was entirely untrue. After thirty-five years of marriage, Kerry’s parents were as much in love as ever. Perhaps that’s what is wrong with me, thought Kerry. I’ve been a gooseberry all of my life.
No. He knew his parents loved their only son dearly. That’s why it hurt so much that he’d let them down.
He passed a driveway with stone pillars and a sign — Something Wines. A vineyard? That might be nice on a sunny afternoon. Kerry wondered how strict the Gabriel’s Bay policepersons were about drink driving. He made a mental note to ask around first before putting it to the test.
Ian was in the final throes. A last series of wails before the jangling guitar and drum finale.
The Fielder’s brakes juddered, tyres crunching on the loose chip-seal and Kerry held hard on to the steering wheel as the car skewed to a halt.
‘What was that!’ he yelled to the world.
Whatever it was it had gone. He’d seen a movement in the scrub to his left and then a creature had dashed out across the road, right in front of him, and disappeared into the scrub on his right.
He could not identify the creature other than to say it was brown, shaggy and barrel-like. A pig? A short-legged cow? Some kind of squat, round, hairy deer?
‘Jaysus, me fecking heart,’ as his mother, Bronagh, would have said, even though she’d lived all her life in north-east London. His father, Douglas, being a school science teacher, would have gone online immediately to Google ‘hairy brown wild animals of New Zealand’ and scrolled through the options until he’d found it.
The radio station was now playing ‘Barracuda’ by Heart. Its throbbing guitar beat wasn’t helping Kerry’s own heart adjust to normal, but he decided it was at a safe enough level to put the Fielder into first and drive on.
At least he was nearly there. Five minutes tops, he reckoned. How many other tests could the place possibly throw at him?
He arrived at the bridge. It was, as it had looked from a distance, the old-fashioned span kind. It was also one lane. The road on the other side went up and directly around a bend. You couldn’t see what was coming. However, a sign with red and black arrows seemed to indicate that he had the right of way, so on he went, slowly.
Round the bend, at speed, came an ancient bus. As Kerry was now two-thirds of the way across the bridge, who had the right of way seemed irrelevant and he assumed the bus would stop. It didn’t. Well, it did, but not until it was right in front of him, a manoeuvre which obviously forced him to stop also. A woman was driving. Mid-fifties, round face, masses of brown curls pulled back in a rough ponytail. She waved at him in a manner that could be taken as friendly but probably wasn’t, and then sat there, the bus chugging on idle, wobbling gently. Kerry caught a shadowy glimpse of passengers’ heads craning into the aisle, the better to see what was going on.
What was going on, of course, was that he was now reversing, the bus trundling in pursuit, like a circus elephant nudging a ball. He backed up all the way to the start of the bridge and circled onto the gravel shoulder to let the bus pass.
As it did, the woman gave him another wave. Either that or she was swatting away a fly. Kerry saw the passengers’ heads turn now towards the bus’s rear window, as if intent on memorising the face of the idiot who’d held them up.
Please God, thought Kerry, let that be the bad luck trio over and done with. He knew that he’d made mistakes in his life, but still, this seemed excessive. He’d started this car journey aged thirty-two, and would not be surprised if the rear-vision mirror showed his hair now to be completely white.
God was listening. That, or His attention had been diverted. Kerry only cared that the next ten minutes of driving were bus-, creature- and hill-free. And that having played ‘The Ballroom Blitz’ by The Sweet, ‘Kashmir’ by Led Zeppelin and now ‘Aqualung’ by Jethro Tull, with no ads in between, the radio station was shaping up to be the greatest in the known universe.
Gabriel’s Bay. There was the sign. Here he was. He’d made it.
He couldn’t stop, though. The place of his employment was a house a mile past the outskirts. The job was live-in, and he’d been asked to check in, as it were, the day before he was officially due to start, to give him time to settle into his accommodation. Kerry hoped for something comfortable, but after travels where his beds had included railway station benches, a goat shed filled with goats, and a giant sack of rice, he would be perfectly happy with a wooden board. There was still half an hour before his agreed arrival time, but he should keep moving, just in case. Would not do to be tardy.
He drove through the town slowly, to gain some impression of what would, all going well, be his home for the next six months. He hadn’t told his new employer he only intended to give it six months because he might not. He might like it here. He might be able to build a whole new, improved life here around a whole new, improved him.
Gabriel’s Bay was small. No doubt about that. The quantity of housing suggested perhaps a few thousand people. There was only one main street, and it was as long as the average pedestrian crossing in London. It was Sunday afternoon, which he hoped explained the emptiness. The number of inhabitants he did spot could have fitted in the Fielder, if they didn’t mind a bit of a squash in the back. They seemed ordinary enough, not well-heeled, but not underpass-dwelling scruffy. No one stared at him with the cold eyes of those whose plans for strangers involve banjos and squealing.
Architecturally, the town looked a little like someone had built a set for a Western movie and then, over the years, as parts had fallen down, replaced the wooden buildings with concrete boxes, each with one window and a sliding door. Kerry saw a takeaway, a pharmacy, several shops selling second-hand goods, a clothing store that looked as if it only let in customers aged eighty-five and over, and a lawnmower repair shop. There was a liquor store and what could be the pub, though it could also be condemned; one window was boarded up and the front door looked to have been struck by an axe. He did not see the petrol station or the supermarket, but there could be side streets he had missed. There could, in fact, be a whole other affluent side to Gabriel’s Bay. Any town that has a winery close by couldn’t be too badly off, surely?
On his right, at the end of the main street, a yellow sign’s worn black letters spelled ‘Beach’. The town website said the beach campground was so popular in summer that people were advised to book several months in advance. It was mid-October now, so summer was not far off. In London it was autumn, that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and the ritual purchase of new gloves because you had stuffed your previous pair in the back of the sock drawer and now can only find one. Even though it was weeks off, Kerry’s mother would be starting to get excited about Christmas. ‘Whut is it with ye and baubles and yon infant in the hay?’ said his father every year, to which his mother always replied, ‘And this from a man who thinks the Pope fella can do magic.’ Kerry hadn’t spent last Christmas with his parents, having hightailed it overseas that April, a week after the wedding-that-wasn’t. He doubted he’d spend this one with them, either; a nurse and a teacher’s salary barely allowed for a weekend camping in The Witterings, let alone a plane trip to the other side of the world. Sometimes, he wondered if he’d ever go back home again.
Woodhall! The sign was so discreet he’d nearly missed it. That was the name of the house owned by his new employer. It sounded grand; they sounded grand. Meredith and Jonty Barton. If they were in England, the pair would almost certainly ride to hounds.
The sign was on the left of two white wooden gateposts that marked the start of a driveway covered in gravel. Civilised gravel, though, not the rutted, rough kind Kerry had seen on the farm driveways. This stuff had a hint of limestone, its dust fine and pale.
Kerry drove past English trees — oak, chestnut, sycamore, copper beech. One of those Edwardian-style curved-back wooden benches, painted white. Clumps of those small scented flowery jobs his mother liked — freesias? His father couldn’t smell them at all. It was one of those genetic quirks, apparently, like being able to roll your tongue.
Kerry was no gardener, but he could see this one was well tended. Wouldn’t win the avant-garde award at Chelsea, to be sure, but it was pleasant and serene.
And here was the house. Nice. Two-storey. Wooden. Painted white (there was a theme emerging here, Kerry thought) with pale blue trim. Bit of ornate fretwork on the upstairs balconies and the wide porch. Old-fashioned style that suggested inside he’d find worn Turkish carpets, Worcester tureens and paintings of dogs and ancestors.
The driveway ended in a wide circle that bordered a stretch of neatly clipped lawn. Kerry parked to one side, checked that he looked presentable in the rear-vision mirror. His hair was always unruly, not much he could do about that; slicking it down with what hairdressers called ‘product’ only made him look like he was auditioning for a rockabilly band. His shirt was new — bought for less than five quid in Bangkok — and his jeans, as long as he sat carefully, had no obvious holes. His shoes were the pair he’d bought for the wedding. He’d hesitated about bringing them, but they were the best shoes he’d ever owned. He’d abandoned the dove-grey morning suit as being of further use only if he decided to become a magician in Las Vegas.
A lime-chip path curved from the driveway through the lawn, ending at stippled concrete steps that ascended to the porch. The front door had a bronze knocker shaped like a lion’s head. Kerry patted its head — ‘Are you friendly?’ — and brought the ring in its mouth down against the door with a bang that sounded shockingly loud in this quiet place.
Quick footsteps approaching, clunk of a lock, door opening to reveal a dark, wood-panelled entrance. A woman in front of him, in her sixties, neat white buttoned shirt, navy trousers, white curled hair in a layered cut.
‘Yes?’ Brisk, unfriendly.
‘I’m, er, here for the home-help job. I’m Kerry Macfarlane.’
The woman’s brown eyes widened. She was good-looking, Kerry thought. A beauty in her day, though, as his mother might remind him were she here, some women definitely improved as they got older.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she said. ‘Kerry Macfarlane is a woman.’
‘Ah. No. He’s a he. He’s me, in fact.’
He hoped his smile conveyed charm. ‘The very one.’
Meredith Barton, for it must be she, folded her arms. ‘In your correspondence, you gave me to believe you were a woman.’
Kerry tried to recall the emails he’d written to her. He’d pretended to have had a few different occupations over the years — usually when drunk and trying to pick up girls in pubs. And, true, he had once dressed in drag for a work party, but—
‘I’m pretty sure I did not. Perhaps you—’
‘You have a woman’s name!’ said his accuser.
‘Well, no — Kerry is very much a boy’s name in Ireland. And my Francis is spelled with an “i”.’
She made it sound a worse crime than pretending to be a woman. Kerry considered fudging his reply. But this place, this was where he planned to transform into the new, improved him — wasn’t it?
‘Half,’ he said. ‘Northern Ireland. Ulster. Though my mother’s family moved before she was born to get away from all the sectarian hoo-ha. Which is ironic because she married a Catholic. From Aberdeen.’
‘Your father is Catholic?’
‘Semi-practising. A man of science, is my dad. He often finds those two things difficult to reconcile.’
‘And your mother is, I assume, a Protestant?’
‘Not much of one, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me saying. My parents aren’t fans of organised religion. Organised anything, really. Having said that, my mother is a Yuletide fanatic and my father can be forcefully evangelical about model railways when you get him going. I myself sang in the school choir for a bit, so I’m reasonably au fait with the biblical ditties.’
Meredith Barton stared at him for an eternity and a half.
‘Your father is a model-railway enthusiast?’
There seemed no earthly reason why she should have singled out that fact, but it was better than shutting the door in his face.
‘He has a shed out in our back garden. More accurately, our back garden comprises of his shed and a strip of ill-fitting paving stones between it and the house. If I wanted a kick-around, I had to go to the nearest park with my ball and hope the big kids didn’t steal it.’
Although her face made the Great Sphinx of Giza look spirited, there was clearly a flurry of activity occurring inside the cranium. Kerry crossed his fingers that the mental dice being thrown would come up double-six on his side.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘This is not a suitable job for a man.’
And she began to shut the door in his face.
‘No, wait!’ Kerry prevented her by holding onto the door’s edge. ‘Please. I’ve come a very long way for this job. Across oceans, over a huge hill, a one-way bridge and everything.’
‘You’re not suitable,’ she said again. ‘I’m sorry.’
The old Kerry might have given up at that point. Accepted defeat and slunk off. But it was not his fault if this woman had hired him without ascertaining his gender. Or, come to think of it, without being too concerned that he had minimal experience . . .
‘You had lots of other applicants, then?’ he said.
A pause. Had he guessed correctly . . . ?
‘I will advertise again.’
‘But that may take weeks,’ he said. ‘And I’m right here, ready to start. I’m also very in touch with my feminine side. My father quite often refers to me as a big Jessie.’
Hesitation, but with a frown. She wasn’t sold yet.
‘Here’s a suggestion,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you try me out — say for a month, and if you think I’m pants, I’ll go. No fuss, no bother.’
‘Rubbish. Condensed, I gather, from the original expression “a pile of pants”.’
She pressed her lips together. In a manner more thoughtful than disapproving, Kerry was relieved to see.
‘A month is quite some time,’ she said.
‘All right, how about two weeks?’
More hesitation. More frown.
‘You can feel free to fire me at any time.’
Her shoulders sagged, which could be a sign that she’d decided it was simply easier to give in. By now, Kerry had no more fingers left to cross.
‘Very well,’ she said. ‘A two-week trial. With the option to sever earlier if it isn’t working.’
Yes! OK, so the situation was entirely tenuous, but it was better than living in the back of the Fielder until he found something else.
‘Thank you.’ He offered his hand to his new employer. ‘You won’t regret it.’
She took his hand. Her own was fine-boned but strong.
‘Won’t I?’ she said. ‘Well, that will make a nice change.’