THE PASSENGERS: A SUMMER STORY
BY PETER GRIFFIN
I was tired and numb and in that state long road trips tend to leave you. Still she insisted I take the car to Washworld and clean it thoroughly.
“Vacuum the hell out of it,” she commanded as I stood on the drive way looking at our bags spread out on the tar seal, as though ready for a customs inspection.
I was tired with the early swell of a headache. But for now the overwhelming sensation was that of numbness. Numb from the dead silence that had rolled like a fog over most of the East Cape, accompanying us all the way up Highway 2 and the length of Highway 1.
Numb too from thinking about the passengers and trying to imagine what she was thinking about the passengers. Did we really leave them behind on the side of that pot-holed road at Otamaroa Bay or had they hung on, like Max Caddy clinging bloody knuckled to the bottom of the Buick in Cape Fear? The question surely was in both of our minds.
The front door clicked shut as her tanned back disappeared behind frosted glass. There was nothing else to do. I’d take her precious car to Washworld, empty the glove box of gold coins, rent high-pressure hoses, steam and wax at a dollar a minute and purge the awful memory of the passengers. As I slid into the driver’s seat, a needle of pain shot from temple to temple, punishment for such deluded thinking.
The forecourt at Washworld was nearly empty, but the wet concrete shone purple and green with the oily detergent left by motorists recently departed. I picked up the spray gun by its slimy handle and fed some change into the wash ‘n wax. In the bay next door an athletic mother stretched over the bonnet of a dusty Pajero, lathering soap over the windscreen. I could tell she was a mother by her awkward, hurried washing technique and by the “baby on board” sign suctioned to the Pajero’s back window.
From behind the four-wheel-drive emerged a blonde-haired girl, her head level with the vehicle’s bumper. She wore a pink t-shirt that stretched to her knees and her bump of a nose was mildly sun-burnt.
Spray from the high-pressure gun drummed the roof of the Audi as I looked through the rivulets running down the window at the map book left open on the passenger seat, open on the page for Gisborne – the place where we picked up the passengers. Yellow and red lines to signify streets, pale green topography meeting a gentle curve of blue.
It all looked so innocuous on paper, so straightforward and logical. Our plan had been to spend the lazy days between Christmas and the New Year at her family’s bach with Kate and Graham, her sister and brother-in-law. As the bach was accommodating other visitors, we rented a cottage a short distance inland. The steep-roofed house was set on a quiet block of land dominated by big, old pine trees that sighed in the breeze.
It was a charming little place, full of mismatched furniture, the woodwork of a proud handyman and a coating of dust suggesting it hadn’t been occupied in some time. We
unpacked and headed down the road to the bach.
The waves rolled up Wainui beach in uneven sets the local surfers nevertheless seemed to read with great accuracy. The roar of the ocean was loud in the bach, a dilapidated three room structure. We walked along the water line, looked at the large pit of a sperm whale’s grave, played cricket with the locals. Teenage life guards zigzagged across the damp sand on quad bikes.
The bach received a stream of visitors, locals coming to talk about fish-smoking techniques or the problems caused by coastal erosion. There were sun-bleached paperbacks strewn about the place, flippers and masks and surf boards all over the lawn and in the bathroom, a faded map of the world that had the U.S.S.R. dominating its middle.
As the sun was setting I went out on the inflatable boat with Graham. We skipped over the gently rolling sea to a white buoy where he asked me to haul up the crayfish pot. I could barely lift the thing it was so heavy. Six crayfish flapped around inside the cage amid the debris of a partially eaten mullet.
We returned to the cottage and though I felt like sitting up and chatting, the way we used to, sharing a bottle of wine, her legs propped up across mine, she wasn’t in the mood. She was too tired to make love, though the setting was certainly romantic enough. We slept on the mezzanine, the house ticking around us as it cooled down.
The next morning we were up early. Graham’s catch of the previous day was being served early at the bach so we loaded the car and headed once again down the gravel road.
We were unloading the car at the beach when she let out a scream and jumped back from the open boot. I looked up surprised and went around to the back of the car where she was standing, with a look of horror on her face. In the boot were dozens of tiny brown creatures, shooting in every direction, bumping into each other, running over each other. They disappeared down the sides of the boot carpet, wriggled behind plastic trim, squeezed their sleek bodies into the slit between the back seats. Cockroaches. Dozens of them had been there. Now, with a few exceptions they were all gone, hidden. She was suddenly beside me, her sandal in her hand hammering at the few laggards that remained. She swore as she stamped at them.
“How the hell did they get in there!”
She brought the sandal down, pulverising one of them. A pulp of creamy green guts smeared across the carpet. She screamed, furious and threw the sandal down the driveway. She stamped away from the car, wiping her hands against her shorts. I looked into the boot silently, replaying in my head that bizarre sight – all those bodies shooting around like kids in a playground. It was bizarre.
How the hell did they get in there?
“Oh Jesus,” she said from behind me. She was standing there holding the body board bag by her fingertips.
“The thing’s full of cockroaches!”
She dropped it. Brown bodies burrowed into the grass all around.
The body board bag. A slideshow of images rolled past in my mind – unloading the car last night, draping towels over the washing line, leaning the body board bag against the big pine tree by the house. The expression on her face told me she’d seen the same show. She looked at me, indignant, her eyebrows scrunched together, her small lips curled back from her teeth.
“I didn’t…know.” I said.
“How much effort would it have taken to put the thing inside!”
“I’ll take care of it.”
She stamped off around the house.
I spent a couple of hours hunting for cockroaches, but they had the upper hand in this murderous game of hide and seek. I looked up to see her leaning against the bonnet, arms folded, looking at me.
“Kate found a cockroach on the kitchen bench. They’ve never had cockroaches here. Not in 25 years,” she said.
The elderly man met me at the front door of the shop.
“Mahogany birds,” he said casting his eyes over the Audi.
I gave a hollow laugh, trying to hide my confusion, then simply, pathetically said, “pardon?”
“Kate rang ahead, told me about your wee problem with the roaches.”
He held an orange can in is hand, weighing it up as though it were a hand grenade. I soon realised it was exactly that.
“They’re Gisborne roaches. Our own variety, smaller than the German and American kinds. They thrive in this climate.”
He held up the can.
Kevin was his name and he sold all sorts of things in his immaculate hardware store. He pulled the pin on his grenade and threw it into the foot well of the car, slamming the door shut. Then he proceeded to tell me everything he knew about cockroaches – how they were nine times as resistant to radiation as humans, could live for weeks after being decapitated and contrary to popular belief, were quite clean creatures.
Across the road from the hardware store, beyond sticky tar seal, lush vines stretched in perfect rows into the distance. As the toxic gas spread through the car, I wandered among the vines, checking my Blackberry occasionally because the reception was good.
Back at the car, there wasn’t a cockroach in sight. Kevin had hung a coconut-scented air freshener from the rear view mirror to try and disguise the rubbery smell of the insect bomb.
Before the board bag incident we hadn’t seen a single cockroach. Now they were everywhere at the cottage, peeking out from under the stove, hiding behind the toilet bowl in the outhouse, walking across the walls with a sluggish patter that suggested they’d grown complacent in their kingdom, seldom visited by humans.
That night I lay awake in the dark. She lay beside me, her breathing muffled by the duvet she’d pulled protectively around her neck. She’d turned away from me the moment I’d gotten into bed.
A thousand tiny hearts beat away silently behind the particle board centimeters from our heads. It was my fault. I’d left the bag carrying our boards leaning against the tall pine tree.
So why couldn’t I just say sorry?
We set off the next day, a day earlier than planned. The bomb seemed to have done its job. We left the rent money in the cottage’s electricity box along with a note informing the owners of the infestation. We pulled onto Highway 35 and headed north.
In our haste to beat the southern motorway crawl out of Auckland I’d forgotten to pick up my bulging wallet of CDs. The only soundtrack to this holiday was the disk already in the car, a solo effort by the guy from Pink Floyd – “miserable crap,” she called it.
“I awoke in a fever. The bedclothes were all soaked in sweat. She said, ‘you've been having a nightmare and it's not over yet.’”
For some reason the music calmed me.
A brief detour to Whangara. No sign of Paikea there. The marae was empty, the whole place felt desolate. On to Tolaga Bay, a silent stroll down a very long concrete wharf. The road swung inland through rolling green fields that hid the ocean.
We were approaching Te Puia Springs when she yelped and took her hands off the steering wheel. A wriggling body slid down the wheel into her lap. I lunged for the wheel as she slammed on the brake. A skipping, rasping sound as the anti-skid braking system kicked in and we veered to the left. The rear left wheel hit the gravel and the Audi pulled sideways, spinning the rear of the car around. It stopped with a wobble.
We looked at each other, both in shock. Silently, we got out of the car. No damage done. No one else on the road. The acrobatic cockroach was gone. I sat down in the driver’s seat and we carried on. Not a word was spoken.
Moving east now, the land rolled up to meet Mount Hikurangi. The landscape began to change, the lush bush gave way to dry scrub. There were boarded up shops, blockhouse pubs emblazoned with Lion Red livery and run-down weatherboard houses, satellite dishes perched atop them all.
On the Blaupunkt Floyd summed it up, in his out-of-tune croak.
“Dunroamin, duncarin, dunlivin…”
At Te Araroa, we very nearly didn’t make our planned visit to the cape lighthouse. She was slumped in the passenger seat, dozing, glancing down warily at her feet every few minutes. I’d come a long way to see this lighthouse, so I swung the car right at the beach and followed the gravel road.
Stones clattered in the wheel arches. In my rear view mirror, a big Holden raced up and to my amazement swung sideways on the narrow road and proceeded to overtake us. I looked across as the white Kingswood sailed past, a teenage Maori girl behind the wheel, her skinny arms positioned at ten to two. She looked at me with that defiance, Paikea herself. The car motored on pulling in front of us and kicking up dust, heading on determinedly towards the cape.
By the time we got there ourselves it was too late in the day to climb the 700 steps to the lighthouse. Instead I persuaded her to pose for a photo with it in the background. She didn’t stand still long enough. On the camera’s screen she was a blur of hair and skin. The lighthouse was in perfect focus.
We checked into the motel at Hick’s Bay. Bruce, the owner, had hats from all around the world pinned to the walls. We sat in silence looking out at the darkening bay, while locals leaned on the bar, laughed too loud and received regular top-ups from Bruce, who re-filled his own half-pint glass each time a patron ordered a round. She decided to go back to the room even though her meal hadn’t been served up yet. I sat there on my own listening to Bruce and his mates laughing and drinking.
The night was light, as though the Southern Aurora was visiting, though I knew well it wasn’t visible from this latitude. I walked across the property, in no hurry to return to the room. Some Japanese tourists were having a late meal on their verandah, foregoing Bruce’s well-done steaks for noodles eaten with chopsticks.
When I got to the door of our room, I saw my bag was sitting out on the doorstep. Surely she wasn’t kicking me out in the middle of the East Cape, with no means of getting home and no Blackberry coverage. I tried the door. It was open.
I’d barely crossed the threshold when her voice cut across the darkened room.
“Leave your bag outside. I found two in it, there may be more.”
I left the bag on the doorstep.
We were on the road early the next day, me driving again. The road was bad and required all of my concentration. But glancing down I noticed a brown body crawling around the foot well. I braked slowly, indicated and pulled over just before Otamaroa Bay. I scooped up the creature with the floor matt and shook it onto the road. The roach struggled to find purchase on the gravel then scrambled down into the ditch.
No more visits from the passengers, if indeed any remained. Te Kaha, then Opotiki, Ohope. A short stop for gas and a search for brown bodies. Whakatane, Te Puke, Highway 2, a crawl past a three car pile up, Highway 1, home.
The memory of the trip was dominated by the appearance of the passengers. But standing there at Washworld, I didn’t think of anything – cockroaches, Hick’s Bay, the gentle Wainui beach I’d probably never return to. I was mindlessly feeding two dollar coins into the wash ‘n wax machine when I realized the kid was watching me, standing there in her pink t-shirt, dirty water running between her feet and through a metal grid into the ground.
I drove the car forward to where a vacuum hose sat coiled like a sleeping snake. I pulled the dusty mats out of the car, expecting to see sleek bodies scuttling away. There wasn’t a passenger in sight. I opened the plastic foot well vents and peered in at the dark recesses. Brown bodies nestled there. I froze, my heart fluttering. Thankfully, they remained motionless. On closer inspection I could see that they were hollow, empty husks, surrounded by the debris of shattered body armour.
I reached in and took a roach between my thumb and fore finger. The shiny brown shell was intact, the wings clinging to its back, antennae erect, brittle legs extended. It had been eaten from the inside out. The passengers had turned on one another. A war had raged deep within the air vents of the Audi, a war as silent as the one fought on the outside. I held the vacuum cleaner up to the vent and the shells disappeared up the hose with a clatter. Still, I held the sole remaining roach up to the light and looked at it again.
Despite everything, I thought, there was a strange inevitability in its demise. It had survived the toxic bomb, our attempts to stamp it to death and all the same, ended up a meal for a hungry relative. It was designed to survive anything, even the loss of its own head. But it had died. Sometimes, that’s just how it is. Natural selection.
I realised I was a passenger too. I’d never been anything more. Something else had died on that long trip around the eastern seaboard and I grieved for it as inevitable as its passing was.
Just then the timer on the vacuum ran out and the suction died with a gasp. The four wheel drive rolled across the forecourt, the blonde-haired girl buckled safely in the back seat. She looked down at me through waxy beads of water and smiled. The diesel engine roared as the vehicle found a hole in the traffic and lurched forward over a speed hump.
I was left alone, crouched in the carpeted foot well of the Audi, the distant sounds of passing cars keeping to the speed limit and the stereo playing low, playing a familiar song.
That guy Pink was muttering again, some miserable crap about hitch hiking.
“And I have to admit, I don't like it a bit, being left here beside this lonesome road.”