Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Join my Newsletter for book offers, sneak peeks & more!
Subscribe

Kiwi Gold Sneak Preview

Kiwi Gold Sneak Preview

Book 4: New Zealand Ever After

1 – Sting and a Miss

Lachlan

Being uncomfortable was part of my life. Being shot at, though? Not so much. And then there was the angry wildlife.

Not many discoveries made by exploration geologists occur in spots with WiFi and good cafés, so that bit wasn’t a surprise. Papua New Guinea, for example, which I was exploring the uncomfortable way just now, isn’t on many tourist destination lists, and not just because the airport isn’t too flash. The dehumidifiers running nonstop at the mining camp might as well have not been installed, and I was going to have to chuck half my clothes before I arrived back in New Zealand, lest I end up on the wrong side of Biosecurity for trying to import dangerous mildew colonies. And that was the least of it.

Some of the rest of it was that the mining camp was an armed fortification, and I’d been ferried from the airport in Port Moresby by helicopter in order to avoid ambush on the road everybody knew led only to the camp. Being locked down beat being ambushed, but the atmosphere in camp was definitely a bit thick.

I could fight well enough. I didn’t know how to shoot, though, and the idea that shooting might be required had been growing on me.

And then there was the jungle itself. Not nearly as picturesque to experience in person as you imagine, jungles. More being slapped in the face by hairy vines, tripped by hidden roots, and devoured by hungry insects, in my experience.

The whole thing, in other words, wasn’t the rugged highlands of Patagonia, with their views of the snow-capped Andes. Although it wasn’t Canada’s Northwest Territory, either, and I was unlikely to freeze to death or be charged by an enraged bull moose, as had happened on one never-to-be-forgotten trip. That’s what bear spray’s for, though, and anyway, that’s the job.

Gold calls, you could say. I answer.  

Just now, I wasn’t thinking about my working conditions. I wasn’t even thinking about gold. I was thinking about copper. I hadn’t found the spot yet, but my nose had been twitching since I’d checked out my drone footage, and I trusted my nose.

Now, we’d gone as far as the ute could take us, and it wasn’t much farther to the final spot I wanted to check out today. If I could get there. Fifteen minutes before we’d have to chuck the whole idea, because there wouldn’t be time to get to the site and back to the car. Night would be falling within four hours, and it wasn’t safe to be outside the gates after dark. You could only see so much from the air, though, and there was nothing like studying that mineralization and those fracture patterns up close. Once I had my hand on the rock, I’d know.

Ten minutes, now. I was pushing my luck and the safety boundaries here, and I knew it. But I was on Day Sixteen of a planned three-week journey of exploration, I hadn’t found enough ore yet to satisfy either myself or the mining company, and I’d somehow scored this contract out from under the nose of my fiercest competitor, fellow Kiwi Torsten Drake. An independent exploration geologist is only as good as his last major find, and mine had been a fair few months ago. I needed to score here.

Five minutes left. I’d been crammed into this ute with a driver and two guides for over an hour, and the air stank of mildew and body odor, but that wasn’t new, and it wasn’t what was worrying me. I wasn’t fussed by many things. Crying babies, maybe. Murder hornets, quite possibly. Failing to find minerals, absolutely. Heat, humidity, and the monsoon rain we were currently waiting out, though? No worries. I breathed in a calming, if mildew-laden, breath and thought, There’s tomorrow. You’ll come back and look until you’ve found it, that’s all.

My satellite phone rang, and I looked at the number and answered with resignation, “Hughes here.”

 “The boss wants a briefing,” Tim O’Malley, head of exploration for the mining company funding this current jaunt, told me.

“Tell him it’s raining,” I said.

“Mate.” O’Malley, an Aussie with whom I’d worked before and who’d probably been the reason I got this job, sighed. “He wants me to go out with you tomorrow. Two heads are better than one, and all that.”

“Not how I work,” I said.

“You’re tying up our best driver, not to mention the guides. Sixteen days gone. Proof of concept, mate.”

“Bugger proof of concept. Tell him that’s why it’s called exploration. I’m exploring, and I’m not bad at it. If everybody could tell where the ore was, we’d all just dig there and be done with it, wouldn’t we?”

“You’re an arrogant bastard,” O’Malley said.

“Probably,” I said. “But I’m the arrogant bastard you need.”

“Sure you’re not dragging this out, mate?” O’Malley asked. “That’s what he’s saying. Every day you’re out costs us more, and you’ve come up dry. Just telling you what he’s saying.”

“Yeh,” I said. “You’ve caught me. It’s not just the rain and the heat that delights me so much, it’s the promise of jungle rot. And then there are the cassowaries. I’m hoping to get a video for my followers. Bonus points if I get a shot of the giant claw on its toe. Of course, it may eviscerate me before I finish filming, so there’s that.”

“Team player,” O’Malley said. “That’s the idea.”

“Yeh,” I said. “Not so much. Wait. We’re clearing up. Got to go.” And rang off. As long as I found copper, all would be forgiven.

The rain had stopped like somebody’d turned off the tap, and we needed to seize the moment. I said, “Let’s go, fellas,” and climbed out of the ute, and the guides exchanged a glance and followed after, their rifles slung across their backs and machetes in their hands. They took up their spots and began hacking a path through the jungle and toward the higher ground, where we’d find the outcrop.

We were about halfway there when the guides started moving more slowly, even though we’d gained some elevation and the vegetation looked like it was thinking about opening up around us. John, who was in the lead, finally put up a hand and stopped.

I said, “Problem?”

“Rebels,” he said, and waved an arm. “Out there.” He was the designated speaker of the two. Paul, the other fella, only spoke the local pidgin, Tok Pisin. I could catch the gist, but that was about it.

I said, “You’re taking the piss, mate. No rebels here. You’ve got everything else, but not rebels.”

“Here, no,” he said. “There.” He pointed west toward the Indonesian side of the island. “Fighting the Army. Across the border.”

“We’ll stay on our side, then,” I said.

He gave me a dubious look, and Paul muttered something behind me, but we continued on, the wet foliage further drenching already-soaked clothing, our feet sweating in our leather boots, the earthy smell of vegetation and wet earth filling our nostrils, the high hum of insects merging with the trills and hoots and weird cries of countless birds and frogs, letting the world know they were here and ready to mate. We forced our way through it all until the wall of green opened up the rest of the way, and I saw it.

The outcrop thrust up exactly as I’d imagined it from that overhead view. An intrusion of igneous rock, the multiple fractures coated by quartz veins, the sulfides visible, and I forgot about the damp and the heat and the general levels of discomfort.

Pay dirt. More than that. Gold dust, because there wasn’t just copper under there, I was willing to bet there was gold, too. I had a nose for gold, and my nose hadn’t lied. The excitement fizzed in my veins and pounded in my chest as I took my first photo and pulled out my rock hammer to get my first sample.

This was it. This was what I’d come for. This was my score.

At first, I thought I was hearing cracks of thunder. Then they got closer.

John shouted, “Run,” just as I swung the hammer. I swung it again to pry the chunk of rock loose, grabbed my sample, thought about my pack, and decided to leave it where it lay, because in those couple of seconds, a figure crested the rise ahead of us, clad in worn green jungle fatigues and a blue beret. I saw his body jerk and tumble backward before I registered the sound of the shot, and then more figures appeared against the skyline, their boots shiny and black. Another shot from farther north, one of the shiny-boots fellas was down, and I didn’t see any more, because we were running. The rock sample in one hand, my rock hammer in the other, and my pack discarded back there by my outcrop. My satellite phone and notebook, both gone. Bloody hell. I’d go back for them once …

Shouts from behind us, the cracking sound of bullets going past, the thud as one hit a tree, and I decided my notebook wasn’t that important.

They were shooting at us. Why?

The fatigues. Both of the guides were wearing them, too. My mind was processing fast, even as it felt like every realization came too late. The ones with the shiny black boots? Those would be Indonesian Army, and they’d think we were part of it, whatever “it” was. An ambush by rebel forces, maybe.

I should know what the fight was about. I researched before I went somewhere new. I hadn’t researched the neighboring country enough, obviously. I also shouldn’t have brushed off John’s concerns, though at least he didn’t seem likely to get killed by it. He was in front. On the other hand, Paul was behind me.

I ran faster.

Another crack, and something stung my cheek hard. Bloody stinging jungle things, I thought, as my hand rose to swat it.

The hand came away red. I couldn’t feel the blood on my skin, because the rain was pissing down once more, but I could taste the copper of it in my mouth.

That hadn’t been a bug. It had been a bullet. Over Paul’s head, because he was a stumpy sort of fella. Not over mine.

If I was still running, though, I clearly hadn’t been shot in the head, and if I hadn’t been shot in the head, I was going to keep running. Which I was doing when, ahead of me, John executed a mighty leap, then skidded to a stop, whirling as he went in a sort of weird, doomed ballet.

I thought, He’s hit. How did he get hit, in front of me? They must be ahead of us, too. We need those guns out. Paul can do that, because I’m going to have to carry John. I stopped, though, because no choice on the narrow jungle track, and that was when I felt something hit me again.

Not on the cheek this time. In the shin.

It was a bloody great snake, was what it was. Olive-colored, and as long as I was tall, which was pretty sizeable. I registered the next two lightning-fast strikes from the narrow head, the front part of the long body raised off the ground and curved back into an S-shape for further striking power. An image nobody wanted to see, forever burned into my retinas. However long “forever” was going to be.

Three, four times, the snake sunk its fangs into the top of my boot. Or into the trousers that I’d tucked into my boot tops. Through the trousers, possibly, and through the merino socks I wore. I couldn’t tell. No part of me was exactly comfortable, and heaps of parts of me were stinging.

I’d jumped back, of course. You could hardly help it. Unfortunately, the snake was faster. An inland taipan, most venomous snake in the world, its fangs thirteen millimeters long and the power of its strike legendary. Normally reclusive, but startled by the pounding feet. I’d never run into one in Aussie, its other home, but I recognized it anyway. I knew my snakes.

Nothing to do except wait for the end of the defensive frenzy. Nowhere to go, with the track barely big enough for a body to brush through and Paul right behind me, next in line to be bitten. I could have tried to hit the thing in the head with the rock sample, I guess. If I’d had even more of a death wish, anyway, because no human reflexes could match a taipan’s. Also, I didn’t want to lose my sample.

Mostly, though, I was thinking, You’ve copped it now, mate. Not enough time to get back to camp and the antivenom. A taipan’s bite could kill in thirty minutes, and they didn’t bite dry.

It was probably only a couple of seconds before the snake pulled back into the bush and I took a leap of my own that would’ve done a broad jumper proud, and then we were running again.

Of course, if I had been bitten, that was the worst thing to do. You were meant to lie flat, apply a compression bandage above the bite, and get carried out. But then, if the snake had connected, I’d die in the ute, because it was two hours back to camp, so never mind. Especially since John and Paul hadn’t got the memo about the bandage and the carrying and so forth, possibly due to the shooting still going on behind us.

I’d wanted an exciting life, one far removed from family dramas and back garden barbecues and the small-town big city that was Dunedin, New Zealand. Be careful what you wish for, maybe.

The sound of semiautomatic rifle fire was getting louder, the bursts closer together. I hoped the driver had started the ute. I wished we’d brought beer. I noticed I wasn’t collapsing, at least not yet.

For the moment, I was alive. So I ran.

 

 

2 – Falling With Style

Laila

The baby was crying, and I had the kind of tension headache that wraps around your head like an ever-tightening band as somebody turns the screw.

All right, it’s not coal mining or armed combat, but still.

Babies do cry at pretty frequent intervals in the life of a newborn photographer, though, especially when the parents don’t do what the photographer asks. Namely: feed said baby before you set out for the studio, wait for me to take it out of the car seat inside the studio, and stay out of my way.

That last part wasn’t how I phrased it, of course. It was more like, “This is your time to relax and enjoy watching the process unfold, because we’ll be going at baby’s speed. You can catch up on your phone scrolling, if you like, or make yourself a cup of tea. Newborns don’t leave you much time for that, and no worries, Oriana and I’ve got this.” Spoken in the soothing-yet-chirpy tone I’d mastered by now. You know. Mum-speak.

So what had they done? Dad had taken the bub, a wee girl named Ava with skin as pale as milk and a hint of ginger in her hair, straight out of her car seat when she’d stirred into wakefulness on entering the studio, before I could remind him not to. And when I finally got the chance to undress her, moving slowly and gently, the mum, a first-timer all but quivering with anxiety, came too close and started asking questions, and four-day-old Ava heard her, or smelled her, more likely, and woke up all the way. And spent the next half hour screaming.

Which was fine. Turn on the white noise, get the baby swaddled and rocked to sleep again, and we’d be golden. And once she was asleep, I’d duck into the kitchen and find a couple of Panadol for my head.

For now, though, I needed to stay in the moment. There’d be time later to think about those wee items of interest that had woken me at four this morning. Or, better yet, time to ignore them, because what could I do about them? Nothing.

Yes, I’d spent much too much on new props for the summer season, with a week to go until Christmas and the unavoidable weeks-long break after it, and I wasn’t in the black yet for the month, let alone next month. Also yes, the gifts were going to be decidedly modest this year, because buying this flat, which I’d fallen in love with the second I’d laid eyes on it, had taken nearly every bit of cash I’d saved, and too much of my income. And especially yes, my husband had died fifteen months earlier—famously died, and without any life insurance at all, because big-mountain climbers, especially ones who live and risk out there on the edge, are nearly impossible to insure—and I’d done exactly what you weren’t meant to do. I’d made very big changes, very fast.

Not that I’d had much choice. I hadn’t seen any way to afford the rent on the tiny, seriously shonky house in South Auckland, so I’d quit my stable-but-inflexible, pays-the-bills-when-Kegan-doesn’t gig in advertising and my weekend job as a newborn photographer’s assistant, moved the girls and me back to the less-expensive mainland and in with my dad in Dunedin, and doubled down, not on the advertising like any sensible person would do, but on this wildly entrepreneurial path instead.

I compounded my folly a year later by buying the central flat in a former church, exactly as shonky as our last place but with such wonderful light, exactly for said wildly entrepreneurial career, because, yes, I’d somehow gone out on my own in every way possible. I was going to have to go to my dad and beg for help if I didn’t start turning a better profit soon, and I was fairly sure he was waiting for exactly that to happen.

One problem with having an analytical mind, though, is that you tend to analyze when you should be experiencing, and I was tired of it. The only way to influence my future was to be here in the present, and to stay here. Another reason for the new career, because there was nothing more “present” than newborn photography, and if you need to feel alive, with all its highs and lows, being an entrepreneur is the way to do it, right?

Right.

Also, I loved babies beyond reason. The milky-sweet, brand-new smell of them. The curling-up thing they did, their starfish hands and unfocused eyes, their pursed mouths and perfect little feet. Holding them, posing them, and photographing them in all their sweetness was my idea of joy. I’d only been able to give birth to my own once, I clearly wasn’t going to get to do it again, and my baby lust had to be satisfied somehow.

Bottom line? The paint on my windowsills was peeling and we didn’t have much of a kitchen, but I’d found a new path that was going to be better for all of us. Real life had bumps, and second-guessing got you nowhere.

There you were. Pep talk.

 I kept taking slow, deep breaths, wrapped baby Ava up tight in a soft-as-down bit of white mohair that knotted in front, so she became the world’s sweetest bundle, noted from the sweat on my forehead and between my shoulder blades that it was indeed warm enough in here for naked newborns, and shot a look at Oriana, my seventeen-year-old assistant. She knew what it meant, because she gently guided the baby’s mum, Celeste, back to the comfy chairs in the corner of my vaulted church nave/photography studio, also known as the sectioned-off front lounge of my flat, where she sat down with her and began asking sympathetic questions about her pregnancy and childbirth while I walked the baby back and forth between the unobtrusive speakers that were currently emitting the soothing sound of a vacuum cleaner.

You think it’s the patter of gentle rain on fallen leaves that best soothes an infant? Or waves on the beach, sounding like Mum’s heartbeat? No. For so many of them, it’s the vacuum cleaner instead. 

It was working this time, too. The baby was soothing, the wails diminishing in volume and frequency, and Oriana was still doing the business.

You wouldn’t think a seventeen-year-old would be much chop as a photographer’s assistant, especially working with brand-new babies and their brand-new mums in a job that required every bit of patience a person could possess, but I’d been desperate after my last assistant, Ginger, had left on maternity leave, and her replacement hadn’t worked out. I’d needed to bridge the gap until February fourteenth, Oriana had been on school holidays until the end of January, so—not perfect, but heaps better than it could have been, and I’d taken the chance.

Besides, Oriana was no ordinary seventeen-year-old. Made of caretaking stuff, she had a gentleness about her that soothed everyone in the vicinity. As a bonus, she was brilliant with the props, always bringing in mosses and flowers and other interesting things, and inventive about what to do with them.

“I was thinking—what about a scatter of fallen oak leaves and acorns, or maple leaves, maybe, in that red—but real ones, because you can tell which are real—around a big wooden bucket, holding an autumn baby?” she’d asked this morning, and I’d seen it just as she had and couldn’t wait to try it. At the moment, though, we were in midsummer, and Ava was a flower baby all the way.

Finally, she was asleep, and I set her down as slowly as I possibly could on the padded platform, which I’d draped in pale gray for this shot, in the filtered light let in by the translucent screens in front of the big windows. She looked beautiful there, with that skin and that bit of red in her wispy hair. Her clenched fist was against her chin, and she was so sweet, you just wanted to cuddle her. I took off her swaddling, and then, moving so slowly, took off her nappy. And she stayed asleep.

Newborns were wonderful, when you thought about it. If I still felt uprooted and off-balance sometimes, what did a newborn feel, out of that safe, dark nest with nothing but the soothing swish of fluid around her and the lub-dup of her mother’s heartbeat, and into a world full of too much stimulation of too many kinds? And yet—look how they adapted. Look how they grew.

I was just breathing a sigh of relief and moving Ava carefully into the first pose, the bare-body bum-up position that’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, when I heard the heavy sound of the back door banging shut without any attempt to dampen the noise, and Ava startled and screwed up her face to cry. And took a dainty little wee while she was at it, because there was a wet patch spreading beneath her.

Not today, I thought. I said one o’clock, and it’s barely ten! You’re not even close!

Voices outside the studio, because somebody—probably me—had failed to shut the dividing door.  My daughter Amira, in her best six-going-on-sixteen voice, saying, “You can lie down and be quiet and safe.” Not sounding like an emergency, but—what? Had something happened to Yasmin? She wasn’t safe?

I picked up little Ava, because, yes, she was wailing again, turned on the white-noise machine once more, cuddled the baby close, and tipped my chin at Oriana, who jumped up, took the little girl from me, and headed over to the changing table while the baby’s cries increased in volume. Ava’s dad sighed and looked at his watch, and I told him, wanting to go check on the girls but somehow managing to keep my voice in the chirpy-but-soothing register, “We’re all good here. It takes a wee while sometimes for baby to settle, but that’s why we have a four-hour window. If you’d like to go have a coffee, though, take a walk, have a break, that’s fine.”

“We’re not leaving her,” Nervy Mummy, Celeste, protested.

“Of course not,” I said. “But you can take it in turns, maybe, on the coffee.”

Bored Dad was standing up, and I thought, finally. Which was when the air was pierced by the unmistakable sounds of somebody retching, and Celeste looked up from her phone in alarm.

“Excuse me,” I said, keeping my cool with a major effort. Half of me wanted to scream, and the sometimes-unfortunate, irrepressible other half, the reason the corporate world hadn’t been for me, wanted to laugh.

Really? Really? A tummy bug? I did not need a tummy bug anywhere around me, not now. And yet here we were. Real life striking once again.

Before I could even turn around, two little girls were in the doorway. One of them, Yasmin, peeping around the edge and hesitating, like she knew she wasn’t supposed to be in the studio when Mummy was working, and her twin standing square in the middle of my workspace, her hands on her hips, her black specs perched on her nose like a prop and all of her looking like an extra-small CEO, saying, “Mummy, the new babysitter is being sick.” That was Amira, who definitely did think she should be the CEO.

I might doubt myself. Amira didn’t. Once she could read and write, the power struggle would well and truly begin.

The babysitter was being sick, too. Again.

Somebody else poked his nose around the door now. Somebody with a very hairy white nose, three legs, and a black spot over one eye like a pirate, which was why his name was Long John. For Long John Silver, obviously. Long John knew as well as both girls that he wasn’t supposed to be in here. He probably knew better than both girls, actually. Especially Amira.

I breathed in, breathed out, thought, Not the poor girl’s fault she’s sick, and said, as calmly as I could, “Let’s go check on her, then.” And set out to do it.

The babysitter, a Uni student named Deirdre, came lurching out of the family toilet at the back of the flat, looking so pale that she was nearly green. I stopped a good distance away and said, “Don’t come any farther. Infection, eh. You’d better go lie down in my bedroom until you can get a lift home. Or I’ll drive you, once I’m done here.”

Maybe the girls wouldn’t catch it for a few days, and maybe I wouldn’t catch it until Christmas week. With luck.

There you were. I was wishing for a tummy bug for Christmas. You couldn’t get much more adult than that. Also, I was going to have to cancel all my appointments for the week. Bugger.

I turned, then, because Celeste, the Baby Mummy, was at my elbow, saying, “Excuse me, but if somebody’s ill, we need to take the baby home. I can’t expose her to contagion.”

“Of course not,” I began to say, just as Amira said, “It’s not anything bad. It’s just her Monday sick. She said.”

Deirdre opened her mouth to say something, then looked like she regretted it and might be running for the toilet again, and I said, “What?”

“She only gets sick on Mondays,” Yasmin volunteered, creeping out into the room a bit farther and looking at her twin, who nodded in confirmation. Long John Silver, dog version, hung back. At least somebody in my house listened to me. Pity it was only the dog.

Yasmin went on, “Usually she drinks coffees and then she feels better. Sometimes I rub her head, though, and we talk very softly, because it helps.”

Deirdre said, “I just have a touch of something, that’s all. I’ll be fine tomorrow.”

“It’s because she has a hangover on Mondays,” Amira said. “Monday is after the weekend, and people get hangovers on weekends. A hangover isn’t from germs, though,” she told Celeste, like a Girl Who Knew. “It’s from drinking too many drinks of alcohol. Probably in a bar. I don’t think a baby can catch it. You only catch things from germs.”

Deirdre said, “No. That’s not it. It was—” and looked like she had no clue how to finish this sentence.

I said, “How do you know that’s what it is, Amira?”

“Because I asked Grandad, of course,” Amira said. “I know you said not to say,” she told Deirdre, “but I didn’t tell him it was you. I just said I was curious, because being curious is good. Grownups always answer your question if you say you’re curious.” Back to me, then. “And after you drink the drinks, you get sick and you spew. I know it was a hangover because she says it when she’s talking on the phone to her friends. She talks to her friends all the time. That’s why we have to wait for her so much.”

“And I said it was Mondays,” Yasmin said. “You didn’t remember it was Mondays, Amira.”

“I did too,” her twin said. “I just didn’t say.”

“Why do people want to drink drinks if it makes them sick, though?” Yasmin asked. “I don’t like to be sick.”

Amira sighed. “Because it makes them happy. Before they get sick. Grandad says it’s not really happy, though. He says it just feels happy. Also, it’s haram. Even though he has beer in his fridge sometimes, but he says beer isn’t really alcohol, not to a man with Viking blood. But I looked it up online, and it is.”

“You can’t read,” I said. “How could you look anything up?”

Amira sighed again. Clearly, I was dim. “Yasmin spelled it, of course. She typed it and read the part about alcohol. But I said to.”

“It doesn’t feel happy to get sick, though,” Yasmin said. “So I don’t think that’s true.”

“It is,” Amira began hotly.

I needed to get control of this. I told Deirdre, “Go lie down on my bed for now, please, and we’ll talk when I’m finished here.” Then I told the girls, “Go play in your room. We’re on working rules now.”

“Can we get a snack?” Amira asked.

“And a drink,” Yasmin said. “Not an alcohol drink, like for hangovers. Just a regular drink. Like juice is a regular drink.”

“Lemonade is a regular drink, too,” Amira said. “But we don’t have any lemonade. Deirdre was going to buy us lemonade ice blocks at the dairy, which is like juice except frozen, so it’s healthy, but then she got sick and spewed on the pavement and we came home instead. If you gave us some money, Yasmin and me could go to the dairy now and get ice blocks. I could carry the money in my pocket so it was safe, and we could hold hands and cross very carefully.”

“Working rules,” I said again. “And you’re not to cross that busy road alone. You’re six. You know where the kid-snacks are. You can have those.”

“We wouldn’t be alone,” Amira said. “We’d be together. And we’re almost seven.” They weren’t. “We could—” As if she were about to suggest that she could cook them both lunch while she was at it, or possibly borrow my EFTPOS card and board a bus to a café. Which was entirely within the realm of possibility.

Celeste, the baby-mum, said, “Maybe we should just go.”

I said, “Let’s sit down and talk about it,” decided that turning my back on the girls was my only option here, and led the way to the studio, so Celeste would have to follow me. This time, I closed the door behind me.

Baby Dad was out there on his phone, and Celeste said, “Honestly, David, how can you just ignore all this? I thought you’d be getting the baby!”

Oriana had the newborn in a rocking chair now. Ava’s little cheek was against Oriana’s chest, and her eyelashes lay against that cheek like feathers, her skin nearly translucent in the soft, filtered sunlight from the enormous Gothic windows in the church that was my home.

The photos were going to be lovely. If her parents would let me take them, that is. Ava was a sensitive little thing, and I could catch that. Not in a bowl. In a nest. With a tiny cream-colored headband scattered with an extra-small replica of Pohutukawa flowers, which I happened to have, among many, many other headbands, and a few more of the red-blossomed Kiwi Christmas branches in soft focus at the side, from the bunch Oriana had brought in this morning. I’d planned on roses, but when you met the actual baby, you sometimes had to change the plan. All of my best shots had come from changing the plan, and Ava was a Christmas baby. It was going to be perfect.

Babies were the easy part of the job. The fun part, too. But I wasn’t at the fun part just yet, so I said, using every bit of steady decision I possessed, “Please. Let’s sit.”

Celeste hovered another moment, and I stared at her with calm expectancy until she sat. I told her, “We can try this again another day if you like, after the New Year.” I wouldn’t be paid for today, because I hadn’t even taken a photo yet, and they might very well not come back, but that was how it went, working for yourself.

You could roll with life, or let life roll you. I’d read it on a poster, and I was rolling.

All right, I was possibly falling. But I was rolling along the way. Falling with style.

Celeste looked doubtfully at me, then at the baby, then at her husband. He didn’t appear exceptionally invested in the outcome. She finally said, “Can’t you do it sooner?”

“I’m booked until the holiday,” I said, “and shut down until after the New Year. I’m pretty fully booked that first week back, too, but I can find a slot for you somewhere.” It wasn’t quite true, but if you wavered once, you were lost. Clients were like sharks. They could sense blood in the water. Besides, people wanted things more that were in demand. Social proof, they called it, and limited space was social proof. I’d read that one in a magazine.

“She’ll be too old by then, though,” Celeste said.

I smiled. “Too old to pose quite as easily, maybe. But not too old for some lovely photos.”

“Do you still think you can pose her in the bowl?” Celeste asked. “And the flowerpot?”

“Darling,” Dad—David—said. “Maybe it’s best to leave it. We did say it was an indulgence, with all the expense we’ve already been to.”

Celeste said, “I’m sorry, did you make a human being? Did you give birth to a human being with a head the size of a grapefruit? Did you tear the most sensitive part of your body open without an anesthetic? Are you squirting water on your horrible mess of stitches and dreading taking your next poo?”

“Hang on,” he said. “I didn’t say that I—”

In the back of the flat, I heard the bang that was the outer door closing again. That had better not be the girls. It had better not. Amira poked her head around the screen, though, her mouth open to say something, and I nodded decisively at her. Which meant, Deirdre left, obviously. I’ve got it. Which, fortunately, she seemed to understand.

Now I just had to find a new babysitter. Today. One week before Christmas. Easy-peasy.

“You think it’s silly,” Celeste was telling David now, completely ignoring me, fortunately. “Really? It’s silly that I want a photo of how beautiful and perfect she is, after the miscarriages? After I had to go on bed rest to keep her? It’s silly that I want a reminder of how lucky we are to have her?” She was tearing up, and I thought, first, that it was easy to misunderstand somebody’s anxiety, somebody’s pain, because only they knew their whole story. I also thought that if I could get Celeste calm and relaxed, I could get a lovely photo. Put her in a white shift, cuddling the baby close, their fine, red-gold hair the only splash of color? That would be gorgeous.

David, to his credit, put an arm around her and said, “Of course not. Sorry, darling.” And I thought that “I love you” could be overrated as a woman’s favorite phrase. Surely, “Sorry” ranked higher. It had the value of scarcity, for one thing.

Did I say that? I did not. I said, “We’ll get lovely photos, I promise. She’s pure sweetness, and that’s what we’ll show. And I’d like to do a shot with you holding her, Celeste, as well as the family shot. I want to show that tenderness you have for her, and that gratitude. If she’s a miracle baby—let’s show that.” After that, I got up and started moving screens and lights, because hers had been a winning argument if I’d ever heard one. They were going to be staying.

As for me? I was going to take the very best photos I had in me, and roll with it. And focus on success and solvency and in-command adulthood, not on three A.M. what-ifs and terror.

That was a plan.

 

 

3 – Absolutely No Codpiece

Lachlan

A man who’s just got home from weeks in the bush and whose boots, not to mention his trousers, still have puncture wounds in them, should not have to go to a costume ball on New Year’s Eve. It should be a rule.

Right. I’d made it a rule. That was a no.

“Come on,” my mate Jax’s wife, Karen, said. “It’s for a good cause, finishing the restoration of the theater. Don’t you care about culture?”

“No,” I said.

She laughed, but she also kept talking. “It’s New Year’s Eve tomorrow, though, and you don’t have a partner, at least there’s nobody with you on that towel. This seems to be the social event of the Dunedin season, too. If there were a Dunedin season, which there isn’t. What else are you going to do, though, go to a bar? Or stay up late with your whanau, maybe? Which is what we’d be doing, otherwise. Not exactly the glamorous life.”

Since those were indeed my two choices, I didn’t answer. At the moment, we were on the beach at St. Clair, where Karen had just dropped down on her towel beside me after a bracing swim in the always-freezing water. Also beside her baby, Logan, who was sitting on my towel and gumming a set of plastic keys like he was confident that if he just salivated enough, he could digest them, in between equally determined attempts to crawl off and eat sand. The kid had a steely-eyed focus I recognized from knowing his father.

And possibly his mother. It was looking like it, anyway.

“Somehow,” I said, interrupting the journey of Logan’s sand-filled fist toward his mouth and handing him the keys again instead, “that’s not selling it for me. I don’t follow the society pages much. Besides, it’s Shakespeare. That means the costume is tights. I went to school.”

Jax, who was ignoring the curious glances at his new amphibious leg prosthesis, with its futuristic, matte-black metal plate and line of drainage holes, picked up his son, settled him on his own towel, and squeaked a dinosaur at him. “Mate,” he said. “I’m being Romeo. If I can be Romeo, you can do this. I wanted to be Mercutio. At least he has a sword fight. Somebody put an end to that pretty smartly, though, and Romeo it is.”

“Only because me as Juliet is funny,” Karen said. “We had Taming of the Shrew suggested, of course, and Jax thought that was funny. Hideously misogynistic, though, so that’s not happening. I tried to sell him on me being the fairy queen and him with a donkey head, from Midsummer Night’s Dream, you know, which covers most of the Shakespeare anybody knows, but he wouldn’t. This was our compromise. Anyway—date night. New Year’s Eve. Champagne. Attractive costume, with mask, because did I mention? It’s masked. Possible heady flirtation with strangers.” She sighed in a hopeful sort of way.

“Oi,” Jax said.

I hadn’t met Jax at school, like you’d think, even though we were close to the same age and had both grown up in Dunedin. Different sides of the tracks, though. I hadn’t exactly attended Otago Boys, with its gingerbread towers and eye-watering fees. No, I’d met him some years back, in a hotel bar in Abu Dhabi, during a bit of R&R for him and a break in a yearlong stint in the UAE for me. My first big copper find, and I’d been riding high. Back then, Jax had been doing his own flirtations with strangers, and they’d flirted back. A face that was almost too handsome, and a body that had appeared in too many undies ads? Yeh, they’d flirted back.

He was still good-looking, I guessed, in a damaged sort of way. Dangerous, definitely. Except not to his wife. Or his kid, since Jax was making the squeaky dinosaur talk now. If anybody had been tamed, it hadn’t been Karen. I may have shuddered a bit.  

“I didn’t say me doing the flirting,” Karen said. “I said Lachlan. Although … possibly. Would you be jealous?”

When a woman looked for somebody to tease, her first choice probably normally wouldn’t be a Special Forces bomb-disposal expert with one leg, too many scars, and toughness generally rolling off him. Other than Karen, because that was exactly the bloke she’d picked.

“Yeh,” Jax said. “I would. I’m already jealous. What’s Lachlan’s costume, then, so he doesn’t look like a prat?”

“It’s obvious,” she said. “Hamlet. Black tunic, jeans, black boots with the jeans tucked into them, black mask. Sword, definitely. Dark and dangerous. He can borrow the boots from you, if he doesn’t have any. Army boots totally work, and you’re about the same size.” She looked me over in an appraising sort of way.

“No need,” I said. “I have boots. Well-worn ones.” I might have mentioned the punctures, possibly, except that her husband had had his leg blown off by an Afghan IED, which made my snake adventure not all that exciting.

Karen said, “This costume will rock. I’d want us to do it, because Jax as Hamlet is delicious, you must admit.” At which Jax smiled a bit and didn’t answer. “Except that I don’t much want to be Ophelia. She has about ten lines, and her big moment is going crazy from the stress and drowning herself. No, thanks. I’d like some agency, please.”

“I’m not dark and dangerous,” I felt compelled to point out. “I’m a geologist, I’m very nearly blond, and the last time I was in danger, I didn’t have a gun and wouldn’t have shot it if I had. I ran instead. Though I am going in this water, which counts for something.” I stood up to do it, now that my baby-minding was over. It would chill me to the bone without a wetsuit, but I was ready to be cold instead of hot for a bit, and anyway, this was the sea I’d grown up with.

There’d been a period there, back in those high-school days, when I’d been sure my path out of my child-filled, female-centric life was as a commando. I’d come here on the bus every day after school and forced myself into the water for a brutal five or ten minutes before heading home to, yes, babysit.

I may have been overcompensating. I’d also almost frozen off the wedding tackle a time or two, and in case you haven’t noticed yet, I hadn’t become a commando. Whereas Jax, who’d apparently lived to play in all senses of the word back then, had. There you were. Life.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are dangerous,” Karen said blithely. “You pretend. Hence the costume. Although, excuse me, you have a huge scar across your cheek at the moment. Which is from a bullet. All you have to do is say that, very casually, and she’s melting. Ask me how I know. Or you can babysit some more, of course. We were planning on taking Logan to Jax’s parents, but I’m sure they’d appreciate a break. If you were just going to hang around home …”

“Do we know that Lachlan has a clue what to do with a baby?” Jax asked. “Pretty cavalier with my son and heir there.”

“You could say I have a clue,” I said, for some reason. “I have quadruplet sisters. Eight years younger. I can change two nappies at once. Ask me how many seconds it takes me. And I’m not boring some poor woman with the story of my bullet wound. I’m not that much of a prat yet.”

“Really?” Karen said. “About the sisters? Jax never told me that.”

“Didn’t know, that’s why,” Jax said.

“You’re kidding,” she said. “You’ve been friends how long? That’s quite the detail to totally miss. What do men talk about?”

“Not that, anyway,” Jax said.

“Ah,” she said, pouncing on it. “Women.”

“No,” Jax said. “You’ve read too many books. Can’t remember, really. Sport, probably. There was cricket on in the bar when I met him, I remember that.”

“India and New Zealand,” I said. “World Test Championship.”

“That was it,” he agreed. “When New Zealand had that 352-run stand in the sixth wicket, and India were bundled out with 197. That was the day.”

Karen sighed. “So are you babysitting, or coming with us?”

“He has other choices,” Jax said.

I considered them. As my latest relationship had foundered on the rocky shores of my job and its frequent absences, and possibly also a complete lack of desire for marriage and kids of my own, they involved, (A) a jolly evening with my four sisters, two partners, two kids, one pregnancy, and who knows what kind of drama, because Liana had been quiet at Christmas dinner and had turned up on my doorstep for a cup of tea and a bout of weeping the next day, and Lexi had had that look in her eye that told you she was thinking about either quitting her job again, recruiting a sperm donor, or chucking it all to move to Hollywood and become a professional stunt driver; or (B) an overcrowded bar, along with every other single bloke in Dunedin and half the Uni students, which was just pathetic for a man in his mid-thirties. Or, of course, (C), which was a quiet evening on my own. I’d discovered, though, on arriving back in Dunedin and moving properly into the slightly odd flat I’d purchased, that there seemed to be either children or monkeys living next door, given the constant sound of skittering little feet and the occasional yelp or shriek. Also, I’d heard a crying baby a few times since I’d come home. A crying new baby. You couldn’t mistake that sound.

Doomed. I was doomed.

I said, “OK. If I can find something to wear that doesn’t involve tights and a codpiece, I’ll come. I can collect you at Jax’s parents’ place and take you to mine, and we can walk from there. Easier parking and more drinking for you that way, eh.”

“Awesome,” Karen said. “Also, I didn’t even consider the codpiece. Jax …”

“Don’t say it,” Jax said. “Do not say it. No.”

* * *

Laila

“This wouldn’t be a setup, would it?” I asked.

Poppy Te Mana, who’d been Poppy MacGregor when we’d been at Otago Girls together during my extremely awkward motherless teenage years, and had decided to be my friend anyway, waded to the top of her baby bump in her parents’ enormous swimming pool on the Otago Peninsula and pulled her three-year-old, Isobel, along in her inflatable ring and floaties. I kept an eye on my girls, who were practicing their kneeling version of diving off the side where the deep end started, then paddling to me. They’d graduated from floaties this summer, but I was still keeping a close lookout. Amira could overestimate her competence. Surprise.

“Mum!” Poppy’s oldest, Hamish, called from beneath the diving board. “Livvy says she’s going to do a flip. I told her not to, because she doesn’t know how, but she says she is anyway.”

“I can do a flip. I watched on TV and it’s very easy.” That was Poppy’s five-year-old, Olivia. Her hair was a vibrant strawberry red, and the rest of her burned just as bright. Every time we hung out with Poppy’s kids, Amira became more fascinated.

Imagine if those two had been twins. Nightmare.

“No flips in Nan’s pool,” Poppy said. “If you want to learn, you can ask at your next swim lesson. Where they won’t let you,” she told me in an undertone. “Because you’re five.”

“Grandad says I’m a fish,” Olivia said. “And fish can flip. Obviously.”

Amira had been listening intently to all this, and I could see her lips form around the word. “Obviously.” I’d heard that once already from Olivia today. She was trying it out, it seemed. We didn’t need two little girls sighing, rolling their eyes, and saying, “Obviously,” so I gave her a Don’t-Even-Think-About-It look. Probably wouldn’t work, but I’d try.

“Rude,” Poppy said. “Let’s not say that word anymore. Show me your cannonball. I want to see how much splash you can make.”

Olivia did it, happily and splashily, then bobbed up and swam again like, yes, a fish, and Poppy asked me, “Are you relaxing yet?” just as Amira said, “I want to jump off of the board too, Mummy.” 

I said, “All right,” and told Yasmin, “You can swim over with me to watch, or you can stay here with Auntie Poppy. Or you can jump, too,” I decided to add. Why should I assume Yasmin was scared?

“I’ll stay with Auntie Poppy,” she said. “Because I can help with Isobel.” Doomed to be responsible. I knew the feeling.

It was a while before we resumed the conversation. Mum-talks tended to be like that, though, full of What-did-I-just-say and Get-down-from-there interruptions, weaving themselves through the fabric of the conversation until you picked up the original strands again. When we were sitting at a table on the pool deck having snack time, though, Poppy said, “It’s not a setup. I wouldn’t know anybody to set you up with, since I only seem to know parents. Matiu probably would, though. Fancy a lovely doctor?”

I didn’t say anything, and she said, “Sorry. Too soon?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Or just … I can’t. Something wrong with me, maybe. Or do you know what I mean?”

Poppy said, “Sorry. I met Matiu in the midst of having somebody else’s baby, so I’m not exactly on your wavelength. But then, my husband didn’t …”

I started to say, “Die,” then stopped myself. Did I want to have a whole discussion about daddies dying with this many kids listening? No, I did not.

It’s an odd thing anyway to be a widow in your mid-thirties, especially if everybody knows about it. Every other mum’s uncomfortable imagining it, as if it’s contagious, and men tend to treat you like either a Sad Madonna or somebody who’s gagging for sex. With me, honestly, it was almost always the Sad Madonna. I wasn’t the sexy type.

I said, “I could pretend we’re teenagers and moon over Jax again. That’s embarrassing to look back on, if you like. D’you remember how I used to invent reasons to be in your kitchen when he was home, trying my best to bake something delicious in a fetchingly feminine manner? My mum had convinced me that the New Zealand male was secretly looking for a modest, dignified woman who knew how to speak lovely French and run a household. She never quite believed that everyplace in the world isn’t exactly like Kuwait underneath, and of course, I believed her. Or how about when I’d walk by Jax on the beach in my extremely modest togs and imagine that he was thinking, “Who is that devilishly attractive girl? What? Never tell me that’s Laila. Why have I never truly noticed her dark beauty, soulful eyes, willow-like figure, and demure nature? In her rashie and swim shorts?’”

“I’ve tactfully forgotten,” Poppy said, but she was laughing again, not looking like I’d just got awkward. “And he’s married himself now, of course, so hard luck there. So it’s not for a setup. It’s for fun. Would your dad watch the girls, d’you think? Or if he’s going out, the girls could have a sleepover with my babysitters instead, as I fortunately have two. One for Olivia, and one for everybody else. What did you do last New Year’s Eve?”

Cried into my pillow, I thought, and wondered if my life was actually over, or if it just felt that way. I didn’t say that, though, or that my dad, the force of nature who was Torsten Drake, might have opinions on my social life, especially if it involved dating. Dating isn’t a thing in Islam, you see, and my dad was fairly devout. Also fairly opinionated. But then, I wasn’t dating, was I? No, because the very idea filled me with unreasoning panic.

I’d never really done dating. I didn’t know how.

“I didn’t go to a masked ball, it’s safe to say,” I said. “What would I go as? It’s tomorrow. Not much time for costuming.”

“Go as something simple, then,” Poppy said.

“Something Shakespearean and simple,” I said dubiously.

“Right,” Poppy said. “I’m doing my best to channel high school here. Unfortunately, I seem to mostly have watched the films instead of reading the plays like we were meant to. Not enough funny bits. There was somebody in a sort of nightdress in one, though. Well, Lady Macbeth, of course, but the bloody hands would get awkward. There’s Juliet after the wedding night, but that’s a bit obscure, maybe. Somebody else, I’m sure.”

“Ophelia,” I said. “When she goes mad. Not the most attractive image, possibly.” But I was laughing, which was better.

I could go to a party. A masked party. A masked costume party with a few hundred other souls, with no focus on me and no need to flirt or act coy or brazen or whatever the latest idea was for appealing feminine behavior, pakeha variety. Something that had confused me as a teenager and was still confusing me twenty years later.

“White nightdress,” Poppy said. “The enormous poufy kind. Surprised I don’t have one to lend you, honestly. Sounds just up my street. Hair down your back, and you’ve got heaps of that. And there’s a …” She stopped, then snapped her fingers. “She has plants with her, right? ‘There’s rosemary. That’s for remembrance.’ There you are. One of the two lines I remember from the play. A quick trip round the fruit and veg, possible wreath in your hair—or water weed, though that could be too realistic—air of vagueness, and you’re sorted.”

“An enormous nightdress,” I said. “A fistful of herbs. And a mad look in my eye. Bound to be fetching.”

“Very fetching,” Poppy said. “And a mask. Don’t forget the mask. That’s your air of mystery. Bring the girls to the house at eight-thirty. Let’s do this.”

 

 

4 – Limbs on Display

Laila

When I arrived at Poppy’s place the next evening, clutching my pashmina tightly to me, the person who opened the door to me was … Oriana. As in my assistant. With her sixteen-year-old sister, Priya, behind her. Oriana had produced Priya as my emergency babysitter for that last week before Christmas, and thank goodness for that.

I did that thing you always do when you meet somebody out of context and gaped at them uncomprehendingly, and my girls shrieked and threw their arms around both of them.

“Sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t expecting you two. I didn’t realize you knew, uh, Poppy.”

“Yes,” Oriana said, blushing a little, the way she generally did in uncomfortable situations, even when it was the other person who was making it uncomfortable. “Our oldest sister works with Matiu. We’re, uh, babysitting. For Poppy. And for you, of course.”

Priya, a short, dark girl with straight-across eyebrows, didn’t blush. Instead, she stared at me like a stunned mullet until she finally roused herself enough to say, “Come back to the kitchen with me, girls. We’ll do bubbles!”

They trooped off quite happily with her, especially as Olivia had just rushed in and thrown her arms around Amira and Yasmin and was dragging them off whilst talking excitedly about fizzy drinks and bubbles and snacks and “doing a celebration,” which had an ominous ring to it. Priya gave me another startled look over her shoulder on the way, though, and Oriana said, her color even higher, “Priya’s just out of Mount Zion,” whilst looking apprehensive.

“The cult?” I asked. Well, that was random.

Oriana got even redder. “Yes. That’s what people Outside call it, anyway.”

I studied her more closely. “Did you live there as well?” It would explain so much. The fully isolated community of so-called Christians was known for two things: full-on patriarchy, and a fertility fetish. Well, three things. Extremely rigid gender roles as well. Caps and aprons and long skirts and total obedience, all much closer to Sharia law than to any form of mainstream Christianity.

“Yes,” Oriana said, and now, she couldn’t look at me. As if she expected me to shriek and point at her, the same way I’d always imagined people were pointing at Mama, in her long, dark trousers, long-sleeved tunics, and hijab. Auckland was diverse. Dunedin? Not so much.

“Ah,” I said. “The clothes are pretty different, I reckon.”

“Yes!” Oriana said, with a relieved smile. “You can’t imagine how startling it all seems at first, women walking around in trousers and all, and what you have on is, uh … I mean, you look almost like Mount Zion, or you do look like it, because it’s a nightdress, and the same kind, but, uh … You see,” she hurried on, “you keep expecting the Prophet to reach his hand out and shame you at Worship, or that you’ll go to Hell. At least I always do—did—but that’s just because I’m soft. Other people don’t as much, obviously.” She bit her lip and tried to laugh. “I know it’s all good, the trousers and … and revealing clothes and all. It’s just … still odd. To us.”

“For me,” I said, “it was hair. Wearing it like this.” And felt the weight of the thick, dark waves hanging down my back, wanton as you like.

“Yes!” Oriana said. “But you don’t really go to Hell for not covering your hair and wearing trousers, of course,” she added, though she didn’t sound convinced. She was, in fact, in a pair of drapey, very wide-legged trousers tonight, as if they were her best replacement for a skirt. Torn between worlds. I knew about that.

“I think,” I said, “that you mostly go to Hell for hurting people. The rest of it seems more like trying to control people, especially women. But that’s just me.”

I believed that. I did. But all the same, standing here at the ball, I realized that both girls had been right to look shocked at my attire, because I felt both flagrantly immodest and absolutely wrong. Also battered by music of the un-medieval sort, produced by a live band that had their amplifiers set to “stun,” and swimming in a sea of chattering, laughing, confident people I didn’t know.

But, mainly, seriously underdressed, like one of those dreams that have you walking through your school naked. The white nightdress had a shift-like quality that hadn’t seemed bad in the shop. It had been the only reasonably modest one I could find at the last minute­—in summer, in Dunedin, on New Year’s Eve—and it had long sleeves, a loose fit, and wasn’t one bit transparent.

All right, maybe it was a tiny bit transparent when lit from behind, as I’d discovered with horror when I caught a glimpse of myself in one of the inset mirrors in the opulent lobby, but I was wearing white bikinis and a bra underneath it. You could see the outline of my legs all the same, though, and I was glad my dad wasn’t babysitting the girls. He’d have had something to say, and I didn’t need to hear it.

Brave thoughts. Hold the brave thoughts.

I didn’t have brave thoughts. I’d come to a party—a party in which everybody else was dressed in heavy gowns and beaded caps and velvet tunics—with my hair down and my limbs unexpectedly on display. I’d been introduced to people, a jumble of faces and names, almost all of them coupled. At the moment, an extremely pregnant Poppy/Juliet and her extremely handsome husband, Matiu/Romeo, were dancing, and I was in a nightdress and slippers and standing alone.

This was the new me, though, right? Not afraid anymore, and not shy. Not a good Muslim anymore, either, for so many rebellious years now, so there was nothing new here. The nightdress covered my arms and legs and body. So when a waiter came by with a tray of champagne, I took another step down the road to damnation, grabbed a flute, and drank the stuff down.

If I thought Oriana wasn’t going to Hell, why would I be headed there? And who was here to judge me? They were all drinking champagne themselves.

Kegan was gone, I was on my own, and I was starting over. They say champagne gives you courage, and I needed courage.

I found the bloke with the tray, put the empty glass back, took a full one, and started drinking that, too. One clearly wasn’t enough.

No courage happening so far. Heaps of bubbles, but it wasn’t nearly as delicious as I’d hoped. If a wet thing could be dry, this was it. It wasn’t Coca-Cola, that was certain. The second glass was tasting better than the first, though, so maybe …

The touch of a hand on my shoulder made me jump, and jumping made the champagne splash straight onto the bodice of my nightdress. Which was now clinging to me. And cold.

“I’ll have a guess, shall I?” the man fairly shouted over the music. “Juliet in the bedroom. Brave choice.” His hair was a bit tousled under his black mask, he had the mountain-man beard so many fellas were sporting these days, and he was on the bulky side, the black lines of his Hamlet costume not having quite enough slimming effect. That was about all I could tell.

It was oddly disconcerting not being able to see somebody’s eyes. My mind didn’t seem able to fill in the missing pieces and put his face together. At the moment, though, I was glad of it, because nobody would recognize me, either. But then, how would they possibly still care? I wasn’t Kegan Ashford’s wife anymore. I was a newborn photographer, and that was all. That was all.

Oh. The bloke was still talking. “How do I know that, you ask? Because Shakespeare is my life. I work the Medieval Faire every year, and I make my own armaments, too. Collectors’ items, if you’ll believe it. You carry off Juliet well, though I don’t quite believe you’re thirteen. Luckily.” He laughed. “You could think the play’s a bit pervy, as Romeo’s clearly older, but autre temps, autre moeurs. Other times, other customs,” he added, as if I couldn’t possibly have known the quote, then went on, “But here you are in your nightdress, eh, abandoned by Romeo. If he was here, he’s off to Mantua, I reckon.” He laughed again at his Shakespeare-literate joke and pressed another glass of champagne into my hand. “This may help ease the pain.” He was more or less bellowing, which wasn’t nearly as smooth as he appeared to think, especially given his poufy black tunic and black tights. Oddly skinny legs, too.

Don’t just stand here, I thought. Do something. Especially once he grabbed my hand and kissed it. It wasn’t as romantic as you might think, especially since the beard was one of those too-long ones and scratchy as wire, and he was staring at me. Specifically, at where I’d spilled the champagne, which had landed where drinks generally do when you spill them. Gravity, and all that. I didn’t have enough curves to need to wear overly structured bras, and, yes, there it was. The nipple of a woman who’d given birth to twins, on display.

I definitely felt naked now. If I’d wanted to step out of the box, I’d done it. And my hair was down! Why had Poppy thought this would be a good idea? Why did I never get the rules right?

“Not Juliet,” I said, willing myself not to cover up my breasts with a major effort and taking a would-be casual drink of champagne. “Ophelia. Excuse me. I need to find my friends.”

“Not yet. Dance with me first.” He swayed a bit, like he’d had a few too many. “Ophelia, eh. It’s working, because no question, you’re the sexiest woman here. It’s wrong not to appreciate the costumes, loving the age as I do, but this …” This time, he kissed his fingers and threw his arm out, like some kind of Italian stereotype. It was revolting. “Bellissima. Let’s dance.”

Surely, that had been a startled look on Matiu’s face when we’d arrived at the theater and I’d finally taken off my pashmina. Which had been at the coat check, because the thing hadn’t exactly gone with the costume. I wished I had it back now, especially as Mr. Romance started to pull me along with him, and I stiffened.

Men did not touch me. Not without my permission, they didn’t. I’d been with Kegan since I was eighteen, and his friends had soon learned that I didn’t receive embraces from men. Handshakes I could do, because I wasn’t my mum. I was modern. I was Western. Being hugged by men outside my family, though, still felt like a bridge much too far. How did you convey that, though, when you’d taken off your wedding ring for the night, and you were in a nightdress?

This wasn’t a new start. This was careening straight off the rails. The man was tugging at me now, his other arm was around me, I was starting to panic, and I was going to have to make a scene.

I didn’t do scenes. I didn’t know how to do scenes. I was so out of my depth.

* * *

Lachlan

I turned my head and did a quick sweep of the crowd. Automatic reaction, when you’ve worked in as many dodgy parts of the world as I have.

No threats in sight, though, other than to my hearing, and I was telling myself I was jumpy due to the snake and the shooting and all when I saw it.

At first, I thought it was some sort of weird sketch for the party. The two of them were standing bang under the enormous chandelier that hung from the center of the gilt-encrusted ceiling. A big bloke dressed too much like me, stupid sword and all, pulling at a long-haired dark girl in a nightdress while she resisted him. All of it posed like a scene.

I told myself that, and also, Hamlet and Ophelia, probably from some part of the play I don’t remember, which is most of it, even as I took the three steps over there and said, “Mate.” Because something about it wasn’t right.

He said, “Bugger off,” and I thought, It was a sketch, then. I shot a look at the girl, though, and thought, No. She couldn’t be that good an actress. She was also saying, her voice unsteady, “No, thank you. Not now,” and not, “Unhand me, sir.” Another clue.

I stepped straight into his space and said, again, “Mate.” And added, since subtlety wasn’t working, “Let go of her. Now.”

He did. Unfortunately, he also pulled his sword out of an elaborate leather scabbard with an elaborate flourish.

Not like my sword after all. One of those slim, pointed ones instead, the hilt decorated with gold. It looked like the real thing, and he must’ve been waiting for his chance to show it off.

I laughed. “You’re joking.”

He said, “Treachery!” Naff as you like, and a fair few drinks under his belt, from the sound of him. I laughed again, and he followed up with a few tricky moves with the sword, slashes and feints and all, like part of his personal show. “Draw, if you be a man,” was his next offering, and he did some more slashes, then started jabbing the thing in my direction while holding his other hand in the air and dancing about like a prat.

Wait. The point looked sharp. What the hell?

I didn’t spend time considering my options. I hit him in the side of the neck with my hand instead.

His eyes went wide, and then he folded and went down like a sandbag, his vagus nerve lit up like fireworks. The thin blade of the sword hit the carpet and stuck there, quivering, which answered any question I’d had about its sharpness, and half of the excited starling-chirp around us stopped.

The girl stared at me for a moment, her eyes wide behind her mask, and then she laughed. Startled. Excited. Something. After that, she finished the last of her wine with a quick gulp, glanced around her, set the glass down and grabbed my hand, and said, “Run.”

Why would I run? No reason to run.

What can I say? I ran.

Sucker for adventure, possibly. Not a sucker for women. I’d been on the spot, that’s all, and she’d needed help.  

Anybody would have done the same.

 

 

 

 

Our website uses cookies which may collect information about your visit to improve our website (anonymous analytics), to show you media (video and audio), targeted advertising, and social media feeds. Please see our Cookie Policy page for further details or agree by clicking the 'Accept' button.

Cookie settings

Below you can choose which kind of cookies you allow on this website. Click on the "Save cookie settings" button to apply your choice.

FunctionalOur website uses functional cookies. These cookies are necessary to let our website work.

AnalyticalOur website uses analytical cookies to make it possible to analyze our website and optimize for the purpose of a.o. the usability.

Social mediaOur website places social media cookies to show you 3rd party content like YouTube and FaceBook. These cookies may track your personal data.

AdvertisingOur website places advertising cookies to show you 3rd party advertisements based on your interests. These cookies may track your personal data.

OtherOur website places 3rd party cookies from other 3rd party services which aren't Analytical, Social media or Advertising.