I remember the drip of water into water. Or perhaps I’m making that up, since it is such an inevitable feature of any scene involving a cave in film? It’s hard to know how much I have mentally rewritten at this distance of years. But anyway, the drips, the hush falling on the chattering group as our boat slipped through water into the dark, even our pompous Maori guide (“Now we will reveal the hidden wonders of Waitomo”) silent for the moment – these are in my memory. And then the thousand lights of the glowworms starring the roof, as though the sky had been buried in New Zealand. I thought about chthonic deities, the boat of Charon crossing to the underworld, the ships of the dead in Egyptian tombs, the mystical death and rebirth of the sun-god. I thought about the agonisingly patient calcite drip of the stalactites and about how the glowworms were carnivorous and their lights meant they wanted to lure and eat something. I thought that if I unbuttoned your fly and slipped in a hand probably no-one but you would notice. But I didn’t do it. In retrospect, it was a turning point.
I only have one photograph of you. It shows you on the deck behind your ramshackle Auckland flat with three other people whose names I don’t remember now. You’re sitting on a crate, your head bent over an acoustic guitar, a bottle of Tui by your foot. I can’t even see your face properly, but I can see your shock of blond hair and your muscly American arm. I think it must have been the early stages of that messy party when Lorna was moving out, the one where Rebecca had a huge screaming crying row with David and started throwing bottles at the wall. I never knew how you coped with Rebecca but you had a way of seeming serenely above it all. You were a little older than the rest of us, and you had that half-grin you’d do, as if to say nothing we could come up with would beat what you’d seen back home. You were travelling the world for a rest. I was looking for adventure, and I thought you might be one.
So when the girls I’d been rooming with at the hostel packed up to go to Queensland for the fruit-picking, and your perpetually changing rota of short-term flatmates finally disintegrated, I decided to go south with you and not north with them. You still had some money left from the job you’d given up in Texas, and I’d saved a bit from waitressing and bar work, and we could afford a stint as tourists. To start with we borrowed an elegant but worrying old car from a guy you knew and drove to Tauranga. Getting into the passenger seat beside you felt like playing at being a couple. We were just people who tangled together at the end of long evenings. But I was fascinated by the warm glow of your skin, the kind of skin I’d never seen in Leeds, and I wanted to hear all the things you persisted in not saying, everything I was convinced was locked in your head. It was early December and the pohutukawa trees were beginning to flower.
I don’t remember too much about Tauranga. I have a couple of pictures of the beach looking towards Mount Maunganui, but I think it was in Tauranga my camera went wrong: there was a roll of film afterwards but it was completely ruined. Anyway, I can trace our route in postcards: Tauranga, Opotiki, Gisborne, Napier, Wellington, Whanganui, and then back towards Auckland. Looking at the map now I realise none of these stints were really very long, but at the time they felt huge and empty, miles of unfamiliar trees and pointed hills scarred brown by landslips; miles of flicking through the radio stations. You liked grunge and indie rock, I was a fan of Pulp, and the kiwi airwaves were full of Bic Runga. We wandered around small towns, swam off windy beaches, ate hot pies out of paper bags, and made our flat whites last. I read sections of the guidebook aloud to you and snippets from James Belich’s history of New Zealand. I asked you to imagine what this country must have been like when the Maori first found it, choked with green bush, teeming with moa. “Awesome,” you said.
In Gisborne the car started to develop a noise, a kind of grinding, graunching noise at the back. You thought there might be a stone trapped near the wheel somewhere. You got out the headtorch you carried in your rucksack, lay on your back and wriggled underneath to look, but you didn’t find anything. In Wellington, where we slept three nights in the livingroom of one of your numerous former Auckland flatmates, you and the flatmate (his name was Dean) jacked the car up and scrutinised it again. He thought the problem was the suspension. The two of you discussed it at length, swapping anecdotes of cars you’d owned, sitting over beers on the deck in the evening, while I (a non-driver in those days) resentfully opted for an early night on the sofa.
That was the other thing about this journey: in hostels we always took the cheapest beds, in the single-sex dorms, and in the two places we had a friend to stay with we were on sofas and floors, without privacy. To make it worse you weren’t one for public displays of affection. You were an American dude, and you gave bro-hugs – for example, a warm, backslapping bro-hug for Dean – but you had a way of holding yourself apart, a restraint that was part of how you stayed so calm. Whatever, I could always feel your hands not touching me. And, partly to needle you, and partly out of frustration, I got into the habit of molesting you – rubbing up against you, or letting a hand roam, in Dean’s kitchen when his back was turned, or in the quiet corners of a museum. On the way from Wellington to Whanganui we found a discreet side-road and pulled over and had sex in the car. It was very uncomfortable.
(It’s strange to think back to that youthful urgency. Now I’m alone again I occasionally catch an echo of it, an ache out of nowhere. Perhaps that’s one reason I am thinking of you now.)
Leaving Whanganui, after a picnic lunch by the river, the noise was definitely worse. We decided to abandon our plan of going to Taranaki and drive back to Auckland in one go. As you nursed the car along State Highway 4, cautious over bumps and round bends, I saw the snow-tops of Ruapehu magnificently gazing down and wondered if a trucker would rescue us, if we were benighted. We had no mobile phones, of course. We were silent and left the radio off. You needed to concentrate. But the tension seemed to ease when we had passed Taumaranui and the high plateau was behind us; besides, we’d gone slowly, we were getting hungry again, and you wanted a rest. You spotted a sign for a lookout and we stopped and headed up the hill on foot, carrying apples and trail-mix to eat at the top.
I’ve tried to work out what lookout it was and I’ve googled for photographs of views; the photographs overlay my hazy memories of a patchwork of green grass and green bush, scattered over the valleys and ridges around us, with the hill itself, on whose bald top we ate, skirted with a tangle of trees, shrubs and ferns. I stared at the landscape and you napped for a while with your baseball cap over your face. Then we plunged back down the narrow path through the bush to return to the car. And when we emerged at the bottom, it wasn’t there.
For a moment of course we thought someone had stolen it; but then we realised we hadn’t come out in the right place. This wasn’t the little grit-surfaced carpark but just a scrape at the side of a different road. Never mind; we made our way back up, bending into the slope. We looked for a path splitting away from our own to head down, but instead we found a fork going up. Which of these paths had we come from? We picked the broader one, but after a while it stopped sloping upwards and began to curve round the hill on a level.
In short, we got lost.
I don’t think I behaved well. I remember us climbing up and down and round that hill, you doggedly pursuing the upward slope, me becoming more and more panicky and brattish. It was unfair of you to be taller than me, longer-legged, faster up slopes, patient when forced to wait for me, inexplicably unrattled by our predicament (though maybe you were rattled but didn’t see the point in talking about it). We found the top again, but it wasn’t even the same top but a lower summit below the lookout, and this was your fault. I was tired. I had prickly bits in my sandals. (I insisted on finding a semi-suitable log to sit on and obsessively picking all the tiny leaf fragments out.) I just wanted to get off the hill and find help, sod the car. You looked at me in a considering way that made me even angrier, and began to lead the way downwards. We ended up once more on the small road we’d found earlier.
I’m not sure how long we’d walked along the road when we came to an unmetalled track branching off, in another patch of trees. We would have ignored it, but it had a mailbox by it, one of those tin ones on a post. “Civilization!” you said.
The track was rough and quite long. There was a spectacularly broken-down shed rotting beside it and some abandoned chicken coops.
“I hope we’re not about to disturb some mad old farmer who hates anyone coming onto his land,” I said.
“Yeah, I’d feel safer if I had my gun with me,” you said.
Somehow this was too much for me. It was as though you’d grown another head. “Your gun? You have a gun?” Only drug dealers had guns – and people from Texas, and of course you were a person from Texas.
“Actually I have two,” you said. “A Colt .22 pistol and a Ruger Blackhawk. But not with me.”
For a moment I felt vertiginous with dislocation, a girl from Yorkshire with a man from thousands of miles away, standing on a track even more thousands of miles away, as many miles away as it was possible to get, in the middle of confusing nowhere. And then we reached a tin-roofed bungalow and you knocked on the faded blue door.
A woman in late middle age opened the door, a slightly suspicious and worried expression on her face. A rich cooking smell billowed out from behind her.
You put your arm around me.
“I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am, but my wife and I went up to the lookout and we’ve gotten lost on our way down. We wondered if you could tell us how to get back to the highway.”
What with the arm (in front of a stranger), the word wife, and the whole gun thing that I was still digesting (were you teasing me? were you expecting this woman to try to shoot us?), all I could contribute was a weak smile. I tried to make it appealing.
“Ah – yeah – you’d better come in and sit down, since you’ve popped by.” She’d taken in our youth and bedragglement and evidently we didn’t look threatening. “I’m in the middle of making dinner. You must be tourists. Driving to Tongariro? Auckland? You’ve a long way to go at this time eh.” I was startled to see from the kitchen clock that it was already almost seven. “John’ll be back soon and he’ll give you a lift to your car.”
They were very kind people, those two, out in their crumbling small-holding. Waiting for John turned into joining both of them for dinner, when he came back, because he didn’t want to go straight out again, and because she wouldn’t hear of us trying to find something on the road. It was beef stew, eaten at a chipped formica table with no tablecloth. I told them about our journeyings; when they heard about the problem with the car the dinner invitation became an invitation to stay the night. She was curious about us, an Englishwoman apparently married to an American, and I satisfied her curiosity. I told her we’d met in America, that you’d romantically followed me back to England, that we’d had a wonderful white wedding which I described in lavish detail, down to the dinner menu and the style of the bridesmaids’ dresses, and that we were now taking an extended back-packing trip for our honeymoon. I was having my revenge on you; you sat there with that half-grin of yours until it was time for you and John to retrieve the car, which contained all our things. I felt terrible afterwards for how I’d lied to that sweet woman, but you started it.
They weren’t being quite as insanely trusting as it seemed with the offer to stay. We were shown to a granny flat semi-separate from the house, through a connecting door that, it turned out, locked.
“What did you mean by saying I was your wife?” I demanded as soon as we were alone. I was ready for a proper fight. You laughed.
“You were fucking hilarious,” you said. “Awesome. I could have listened to you all evening. It paid off, didn’t it?”
For there, in front of us, was a beautiful, white-sheeted, marvellously broad and soft double bed. It was a little damp, and we were wretchedly tired, but we made the most of it.
The next day we bumped off down the track and back on the highway to Auckland. It was on that journey we diverted briefly to Waitomo to see the glowworm caves. Perhaps it was exhaustion that gave that visit its dreamlike quality – but it was dreamlike with the intensity dreams can have, that makes you remember them longer and more sharply than many things that happen when you’re awake. I close my eyes and I can summon it up: the chill air on my skin, the coughs and shuffles of our half-seen companions, and the sense of unknown space. We were lost again, but guided, with only one path through the dark; no virulent riot of green here but strange shapes of stone, and, somewhere above us, the glowworms eating. And I think I managed, eventually, for a little time, to silence the relentless chatter in my head.
That night, once more lying uncomfortably on an ex-flatmate’s floor, you talked quietly about where we’d go next. A flight to Christchurch, and then perhaps hitchhiking. You wanted to see the Southern Alps. Dunedin, which you’d been told was like Edinburgh, though you hadn’t been to Edinburgh. Maybe one day I could show you Edinburgh – only I hadn’t been to Edinburgh either, despite having lived only a few hours away from it my whole life. You thought we could stay in Dunedin a while, get jobs, make some money for the next leg. You held my hand under the sleeping bag we were using as a duvet.
But I didn’t go with you. I changed my mind and booked a plane to Brisbane to rejoin my friends. I’d lost my appetite for figuring you out, or maybe I felt you were implicated in some part of myself I didn’t like, or perhaps I just ran out of lust. I don’t know. I don’t remember now. I don’t think it could have worked out between us.
So now I’m looking back, turning over the pieces I have of you. There’s that one photograph, and the postcards, and there were a few emails, though I deleted those, with the yahoo account they went to, years ago. About a week after I left, the car we’d borrowed gently crashed into a wall with its owner inside (he wasn’t hurt); the problem had been the brakes all along. Electronically we shared a shudder over what could have happened if they’d failed when we were somewhere on a steep bit of State Highway 4. Then the emails dwindled and stopped, and life went on, and I went home and got married, employed, distracted, divorced and everything. I planted this garden, in which the bees come and go over the lavender and the little row of lamps I bought light the way down the path.
It’s the glow of the lamps that’s made me remember Waitomo. I’m not good at silence, but there was a silence there, and non-human things going about their lives. And, however unsuitable you were for me, however unsuitable I was for you, it was you I shared that with. So I wonder, I wonder where you are now, and I wish you well.