Who’s that dancing with my mother?

WE WERE LIVING in Napier at the time. My father pulled the keys down from the hook in the kitchen and my mother asked where he was headed.

‘Up the coast,' he said, and my mother went on slicing the ends off the beans for the meal she now knew he wouldn't be around to eat.

‘Allie,' my father said by the kitchen door. ‘I feel like being alone for a while.'

My mother quietly emptied the colander of beans into the sink. She turned around to face us both.

‘Just say where it is you are going.'

My father looked at the keys in his hand, and turned down the challenge. He crossed the lawn to the Hunter parked in the driveway. My mother followed as far as the porch. There she stopped, as if the lawn was a slippery area she would rather not cross, and yelled out, ‘Why can't you say it, you lousy stinking coward!' My father settled behind the wheel and backed down the driveway. My mother raised her hands to her face. Then she noticed me; and that seemed to be the last straw.

‘What are you looking at...goddamnit!'

From being hurt, she wanted to be forgiven. It was a confusing moment. Her face screwed up with anger, and she drew me over and said, ‘Hug your mother, Charlie.' I was happy to, of course, but when I looked I noticed she had drawn herself into two parts: one I hugged, and the other – her proud face – had already turned with a thought to something inside the house.

I followed her inside, through to the living room. She walked directly to the bookcase, where she pulled out a thick book on flora. Most of our books were on plants, lichen and mosses. My father worked in the ecology division of the DSIR.

The book fell open, and the photo of my father fell out. It was taken near the snowline. There was no snow in the photo but you could tell from the rocks and the lichen grown over them that snow was not far off. My father had on his hiking boots. His arm was draped around a woman, an Australian. She was a plant illustrator, who had come here for dinner one night, a long time ago.

My mother studied the photo. She seemed to be trying to prise a bit more from it than the contents were prepared to tell. I couldn't say what she found. Perhaps it was because the photo was deliberately vague that she got so angry. She tore the photo into quarters and watched them settle over the carpet. My father's head was now severed, his whiskery smile even more of a mystery.

My mother stepped back and almost fell over. She had forgotten I was there. She swore, then smiled bravely. ‘Know what we're going to do, Charlie? No. Second thoughts, I'm not going to tell you. Let's make it a surprise.'

Our town held few surprises, although it was useful to pretend otherwise. I was just as happy not knowing in any case, because we ended up at Chee's.


SOME OF THE PUB crowd had wandered across the road and were trying to chat up the Chinese girl behind the counter. The girl blushed and smiled out of politeness, but you could see she didn't know what the men were on about, and I thought it just as well.

We took the table by the window. Cars were leaving spaces outside the hotel. One of the men at the counter came over and sat at our table. ‘Hello, beautiful,' he said.

My mother turned and looked straight into his face the way it is said to be cruel to do with dogs. The man said ‘Jeeesus,' and got up as quickly as he had sat down. Our meals arrived. My mother hardly touched her fillet.

She counted out the money on the table. She had enough, clearly more than she had thought, because she appeared to be relieved.

‘Now is the real surprise,' she said, and we started toward the beach.

The sea breeze was on the way out and the leaves in the trees along the esplanade had stopped rustling. It was growing dark, and sure enough the storm clouds were bunched inland over the ranges.

‘I feel like dancing,' my mother announced. She looked at me, then burst out laughing. We walked briskly. The music from the roller-skating rink grew louder, and my mother pulled the sides of her cardigan to cover her chest. We could hear Cadillac Jack trying to hustle the crowd onto the rink. He spoke in rhyming couplets, so my mother said, and word had it he was brother of a famous American DJ. My mother always said it was worth believing anything so long as it wasn't harmful. So little happened around here, anyway.

My mother fussed over the skates like they were vegetables from the cheap bin.

She glided out onto the rink. She did a lap. Her lips were pursed, kind of hard-looking without lipstick. She usually wore lipstick when she went out. Her eyes were concentrated, as if trying to find a way back to some partially lost feeling. She came down off the high shoulder at the beach end and overtook a bunch of kids from the high school. You could easily be fooled, but if you forgot the rest of her and watched the skates you saw she was in complete control.

The third or fourth lap she came soaring down and picked me off the rail. ‘Push off your toes, Charlie. Push. Push. You're much too stiff.'

She glided out ahead, and started to do a goose-step, holding one skate out front about knee height and alternating with the other. She came past the crowd and turned the heads on half a dozen cowboys. Her face glowed. She knew what she had done. She took off her white cardigan and tied it about her waist. Some of the slower skaters moved out of her way and found the sides as she barrelled down the straight past the hotdog stand. Cadillac, inside his glass dome, let go a ginormous hoooeeee. My mother went into a speed crouch and shot up high on the end bend.

Just short of the cowboys, a guy in black jeans and a bush shirt tied at the throat with a length of string pushed off the wall. There were twenty metres in which to decide whether she would go around him. He held his hand out like a ballroom dancer. My mother dug in the toe of her back skate. The stranger's hand collected her around the waist; she spun around once, then again, this time under her own steam to show she enjoyed it.

They pushed off together. The cowboy holding her hand, and my mother bothered by a strand of damp hair that kept falling across her face.

I had stopped trying to skate. I leant against the rail in front of some spectators. I was wondering where my father was right at this moment. What he was doing. And what kind of person the Australian woman might be getting to know. I suppose I had taken over my mother's thoughts for the time being – caretaking while she skated.

My mother and her partner seemed none the wiser that a lot of attention was on them. The people behind me had begun to mutter. Something about the ‘prison escaper'. Cadillac had gone quiet.

At the town end of the rink they rose together up the shoulder; the escaper hoisted my mother into the air. She threw her head back and used one leg to clamp his shoulder; the other leg she clasped behind the knee and held it straight out in front. In this formation they swept down off the bend. By the hotdog stand some of the pub crowd began to clap. I caught a glimpse of the escaper's face: it appeared caught halfway between a big loony grin and serious concern.

‘I thought he had gone bush forever and a day,' a voice said behind me.

Somebody else said he had slipped out of the bush this morning. ‘Robbie Hale seen him sniffing on the edge of town at daybreak.'


THIS TIME, AS the skaters came barrelling down the straight before the crowd, my mother threw her head all the way back until her skates were over the escaper's head, which brought a gasp from the crowd. Then she brought her skates overtop, as if she were doing a backward roll. Over she went until her skates touched the rink. The escaper reached between his legs and drew her through until my mother was the lead skater. She turned to face him now, and he lifted her so she had her legs splayed either side of him and they were joined at the waist. People had stopped talking and were just staring.

My mother's head was tossed back and she held onto the escaper's shoulders. She started to move up and down with her hips. Neither of them seemed concerned for skate speed. The escaper managed to steer them both up the end shoulder to see them down the straight. On the far side of the rink they moved through the pool of light from the overhead lamps, into shadows, then light again. My mother's face turned a fluorescent colour; now the escaper's head fell back. They were locked together in another movement that had nothing to do with skating.

I heard Cadillac come on over the PA to get more skaters onto the rink. But no one was listening. And there was no heart in the message, because Cadillac did not repeat it.

What happened next had nothing to do with Cadillac, or the crowd looking on. From the esplanade a police siren could be heard. The escaper's head turned a fraction. I believe it was the only intervention he would have heeded. He and my mother had come almost to a standstill in a shadow at the end of the rink. Some of the crowd had moved there to get a better look. The sirens were close now. My mother was lowered onto her skates. She and the escaper stood straight and near to each other, like lovers in a park.

He kissed her once – on the cheek. Then he split. He pushed off and was nearly in a speed crouch when he passed me.

I heard someone bitch that the escaper hadn't returned his skates. ‘Typical,' from someone else.

He leapt the turnstile for the esplanade and skated through the first set of lights. One violation after another, cast behind like discarded clothing.

My mother was buttoning her cardigan, as if it was the most important thing in the world. Her cheeks were still flushed. She knew I was nearby, but she looked up in her own good time. She said, ‘You enjoying yourself, Charlie? Not too much, I hope, because I feel like going home now.'

The drunks near the hotdog stand called out things, but she took no notice. ‘Look at that, Charlie,' she said, and very deliberately she pointed over the heads of the cowboys, to a fairly ordinary sunset.

While we were getting out of our skates Cadillac came out of his glass dome. I had never actually seen him. He had a pointed beard – like the famous record-spinner – but he only just cleared the top of my head. He looked frightened, and in a quiet voice I never imagined might be his he said the police had sent through word that they wished to speak with my mother.

He mentioned the man being an escaper, and my mother, still cool as a cucumber, said, ‘What, you mean that nice young man?'

Two blocks away from the skating rink she permitted herself to say something, and I realised she was shaking like a leaf.

‘I feel like singing,' she said to the trees. Then she stole a quick look at me. ‘Charlie, you're not angry with me. Are you, Charlie? Don't be. I haven't skated like that for years.'

We came to our street and from here we should have been able to see the house lights. The car wasn't in the driveway, and I worried that it would have some effect. But she didn't appear to notice. Or, if she did, she didn't care. At the door she said she thought she might have a bath. As it happened we pushed through to the living room, where her eyes went straight to the torn quarters of the photograph. She crossed her arms, and thought.

‘Charlie,' she said. ‘Go get that glue from the top of the fridge. Let's not disappoint your father.'

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