Out To Sea
Nā James MacTaggart
He woke up on the wrong side of the bed again. Literally on the wrong side, so when he tried to swing his legs out of bed they just slammed against the wall. There used to be a nightstand and a bit of a walkway, but he had no use for either after his wife passed away. He’d moved her old nightstand into the spare room and pushed the bed up against the wall, but now he just wound up sleeping on her side of the mattress anyway. Funny how that worked.
Of all the things he’ll never forget, the drudgery of a forty-five year morning routine is probably one of them. Same shit, different pair of mismatched socks. One is a merino work sock with a hole in the heel, the other has polka dots and barely comes up to his ankle. It wouldn’t be the ideal combo for a job interview and any set of dress pants liable to ride up his leg, but it’d manage the daybreak shuffle into the kitchen. He flicks the jug on and fishes a mug out of the sink. The jug is bone dry but he won’t realise until he catches a whiff of the element frying its guts out.
The carpet is damp from the cold and the wallpaper is shaded with soot. The coal range will solve one of those problems and worsen the other. Beggars can’t be choosers, and the coal range also heats the water cylinder, so unless he wants to ferry jug after jug full of boiling water from the kitchen to the bath tub, then he has to get his hands dirty. There’s no guarantee the jug still works anyway.
Electronics have a habit of shitting themselves around here. He reckons it’s the sea air rusting up all the wiring, and he’s too old to bother changing his mind now. He’ll stick by this theory even on occasions when a deceased appliance has clearly been helped to the grave by user error, like leaving a metal fork in the microwave. It’s always easier to blame someone else.
The door sticks on the coal range, jamming in place so his hand whacks against the kindling box. He swears and rightly so, that same damn spot has been taking a beating. A crimson blot presses against the bandage on his knuckles. Same damn spot, every damn morning. “Lift and pull, lift and pull,” he mutters, twenty seconds and a thimble of blood too late.
There’s not a speck of dust left in the range after he’s finished sweeping it out. You could eat your dinner off it, if you wanted your dinner to taste like shit. He’s always been fastidious about maintaining the thing. It probably helps him reconcile the fact that he’s been pumping coal fumes up, up, and away for the better part of his environmentalist career. It used to be a bone of contention every time he ran into a pack of dreadlock-sporting hippies protesting outside the local coal yard.
He doesn’t run into much of anything or anyone these days, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s a creature of habit, even when those habits have changed. Take the old carving bench he wanders past on his way outside to empty the ash pan. It used to be covered with pounamu dust and wood shavings – now it’s just dust from neglect and spider webs linked between a scattering of old chisels and worn rock paper. His face twitches right on cue and bloodshot green eyes flit towards the bench. A jerky face isn’t convincing enough to break his scuffing stride, but it does explain the hole in his sock.
He empties the ashes into an old Talley’s fish-bin. One side of the bin is warped and melted from the time when the embers were still red-hot. A nearby round of rotting pine doubles as a chopping block. He freezes as he spots the axe embedded in the wood, and then drops the ash pan as he shambles back to life. The axe hasn’t cut deep enough to stop him wrenching it free. He’s an old hand at this wood-cutting gig, and a wiry strength has stuck by him against all elderly, arthritic odds.
I let him leave. Usually this is the point where I’d have to get involved and break the bad news that mismatched socks aren’t really OSH-approved footwear for a retired wood chopper. It’s the first day of summer though and the ground is warm enough so that he should be all good. Thank Christ. I’m happy to stay a fly on the wall this morning.
I stick around long enough to make sure he doesn’t stray off the beaten path. Through the back paddock, up the sand dunes, down the sand dunes, last stop – driftwood city. I sigh and run a hand up my forehead, probing for any trace of a passable hairline. It’s not good news, so I head back to the house to turn off the jug before things can get any worse.
If I’m being honest, it’s not just my sixhead that has taken the jam out of my donut. Every single day sort of does that by default, right around six a.m. when my Dad forgets that he is about to knee strike the side of his bedroom wall. “Forget” and “Dad” are pretty much synonymous for me these days. I’m definitely not the first guy to watch his father rot away into an Alzheimer’s autopilot, but then being the next sheep in line to get savaged by the wolf is piss-poor comfort for the sheep as well.
If he’d been reduced to a mewling, ranting mess then things might have been different; less surreal maybe. Not like this shit. A robot of a man with all of his character deemed surplus to programming requirements. No more environmental high horse or philosophical mumbo jumbo to go hurtling straight over my head. No more dominoes, Blackadder binges, or Baileys with ice. This wasn’t the man who taught me how to dribble a soccer ball and carve a toki. All he had left was a mastery for going through the motions, doing the same damn routine that had been nagged into him for decades.
I know I’m not the best man for this job. I can see it in every un-mowed lawn and unkempt reflection. I won’t pick up the dead rhododendron flowers because if everything else in this shithole is dying, then they can too. His other kids might have done things differently, tried to talk to him, made an effort to get through the haze. Sam was always his favourite, she wouldn’t have written him off. But they aren’t here; they have lives to live, whereas I’ve got a sickness benefit and all the time in the world.
I just can’t stand it when he doesn’t recognise me. Sure, my hair is a bit longer and my jacket could use a wash, but I can still see him through a trench line of wrinkles and dandelion patches of beard. If I could find the hole in his head where it was all leaking it out, then I would plug it with my fucking heart. I just figure that when a man spends the best years of his life sticking his neck out for you, then you owe him some serious payback somewhere down the track.
A couple of Dad’s lessons have stuck out to me more than others. I remember him getting angry on the car ride home from visiting pōua in a nursing home. “If I ever get like that, then you better point me in the right direction and let me walk into the sea,” he had told us kids. He had a couple more that weren’t quite as dark, like “Don’t ever steal your best friend’s missus”, or “Relatives are all well and good in their place, as long as that place is on the other side of the door when you shut it at night.” Bonus points for being able to impart such wisdom after sinking that many glasses of Baileys.
Maybe he had a point. When I go down to the beach to check on him later, I could always try and point him out to sea; it wouldn’t take much of a wave to knock him over these days. There’s also option number two. Maybe he’s better off on the other side of the door when
I close it at night. Maybe he’d want that. I’ll think it over while I sit here and stare at the rhododendron bush. I think I owe him that much.
In this issue we are introducing Aukaha, a regular feature that celebrates the creative talent of Ngāi Tahu whānau. The name Aukaha was chosen in reference to the contemporary Kāi Tahu Arts Festival Aukaha Kia Kaha held in Dunedin in 2000. This short story by James MacTaggart (Ngāi Tahu – Ngāti Waewae) was runner up in the NZ Writers College Competition 2015.
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