Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Chapter 34: Longest Day I




“You’re sure this is okay?”  Neith asked Elle, as she pulled on a T-shirt and shorts.  It better be okay.  She’d spent an hour catching up on shaving her legs at the water hole…in the dark. 

The boys were already out on the front steps, hopping on the spot impatiently.

“Yes.  Regularly meeting with people’s children when they’re not around is one thing, but coming out where everyone can see you and keep an eye on you – that’s another.  And the council’s decision was unanimous.  Koro and I didn’t have to fight nearly as hard as we thought we’d have to.  You have a right to experience Longest Day.”  Koro.  Bless. 

Neith noted Miles’ name wasn’t listed on the side of the right-fighters.  Was he still angry?  Would he forgive her her error?  Koro and Elle meeting little resistance on this motion made Neith wonder how many people wanted to get a good look at her in the safety of a crowd.  This introduced some dread to her emotional medley.

“Wait, you come back here!”  Elle grabbed after Ruthie, who was on her way out to join her brothers.  Ruthie walked in reverse until her mother had her by the hand.  Elle then pushed Ruthie’s back up against the end of the bookcase.  She balanced a book atop her eldest child’s head.  She scored the bookcase beneath it.  “There!” 

Neith was seated on the front couch, having just finished doing up her laces.  Miles had sat here and tied his shoes.  Get a grip, Neith.

As Ruthie came past she held a hand up for a high five.  Neith obliged – a satisfying slapping sound confirming their contact, whilst Neith kept her eyes ahead.  She continued to watch as Elle wrote next to the scored mark – Neith knew – Ruth’s name, age, and “Longest Day 54 AS.”  The woman then ran her hands over the grooves beneath it.  She’d measured Davey and Amos’ heights earlier.  Elle joined Neith on the couch, lacing up a pair of runners Neith she’d dug out of the wicker basket of shoes.  “You know, we could put your height up there too.”  She smiled at Neith.

Neith considered the medi-And that had computed her height via regular health screenings, simply by Neith approaching it in a clinic –  her chip feeding the machine everything it needed.

She blinked back into the present.  Nydia; Elle’s inclusive kindness; Longest Day.

The last day before things would change.

“I won’t get any taller.  I promise.”

Elle smiled, suggesting she wasn’t going to press the matter.  Neith was grateful.  She didn’t want marks on a sentimental column to cause pain or anger in Elle.  Tomorrow Neith could be asked to leave.

They stepped out in quick succession, squinting in the brightness of the sun.  The weather had come to the party; Longest Day would feature all of its usual outdoor events.

Neith felt a hand in hers.  She looked down to Amos.

“Pants,” he said, pointing to her legs.  “Pants,” he repeated, pointing to his own.  She was sure he meant “shorts.”  He hadn’t seen her in shorts before.  This was big.  She’d borrowed them from Elle.

“You’re right! We both have short pants on.”  She began visualising the code string for vocabulary acquisition in an And.  It seemed too formal and rigid now. And empty.  What had happened here just now could not be matched.  That was abundantly clear.

They would have the conversation tomorrow.  After Summer Solstice.  Neith didn’t want to emblaze her betrayal into Nydia’s collective memory; a poor legacy on a day remembered for good.

She hadn’t slept much the night before.  She’d gone to the water hole to shave.  She’d felt her heart leap in fear at least twice on the way back in the dark at sounds behind her.  Later still, she reviewed her email.  To no surprise, she had finally received a message from Dr Boyd, post-Miles-explosion – her vital readings from her internal chip must have been off the charts.  She’d replied with a brief report of having taken a step backwards in the trust department, but that she would put everything right.  Things would be okay.  Ha!

Boyd’s email wasn’t the only one.  Grace had sent her a message, devoid of her usual jokes about ruling her towers.  She wrote of missing Neith, terribly.  What had she said?  “Things weren’t quite as desperate as swigging mouthwash to dull the heartache, but I may find something sugary to soften the blow.”  Alcohol was hard to come by outside of dating events, in Feichangbei.  In case. In case someone finally conceived and consumed it unknowingly.  Like treason, the penalty for feticide in Xinland was death.

Neith felt she had well and truly left that world.  And stayed away too long, according to Grace.

Elle tut-tutted the boys, who were slapping pillaged strawberries into their mouths from the family’s patch.  Amos’ chin was striped in red lines of juice – he’d been raiding a while. 
Under the small awning of the front step, Elle lathered the little ones in an emulsified solution of red raspberry, carrot seed oil and almond oil.  It smelled divine.  She passed the lotion to Ruthie, who applied it all over her exposed skin as well. 

Seeing Ruthie had finished quickly, Elle asked her to go back inside and take the salads they’d all prepared that morning, for the day – including some leftovers from the previous night’s feast.  “Run them to the hall, Ruthie?”  Ruthie left.

For Neith, Elle ran over the basic agenda for Longest Day while rubbing their family’s sunscreen lotion into her own face.  Neith rubbed some into hers.  They got the back of each other’s necks.  When Ruthie got back from her drop-off, the family said a short prayer about sportsmanship and kindness – right there outside. 

They set out.  Neith couldn’t remember a time in all of winter, autumn and spring, that the five of them had walked any distance, like this – hand in hand.  They all held hands now, excepting Ruthie – who rested her hand in the crook of Neith’s arm.  Neith committed to shelving her anxiety and relishing their togetherness.  They went to a field down by the beach – an area Neith had only passed coming into Nydia and going fishing with Jamin.  The grass was short and smelled like The Green in summer.  Her heart swelled.   Here it was just as busy as The Green.

Ruthie squeezed inside Neith’s arm while they both took in the assembly.  Neith estimated 50 or so small clusters dotted the field in small seated groups.  The field was sandwiched in on its sides by simple long benches, permanently fixed to the ground. No one was seated on these – all opting for the grass instead.  Wooden-framed nets were at either end of the field.    Most people were facing towards the water and one of the end goals, so thankfully couldn’t stare at her approach.  A few turned, caught eye of Elle’s grown foster child / sister.  They whispered or nudged neighbours.  Neith kept her head up and ignored it. It was to be expected.  Stares were nothing new to her.  At least no one was touching her without invitation.  What was different was that her note’s author and florist were here somewhere.  Neith refused to let it ruin today, because also here were Elle and her three champions.

And Miles.

Neith caught sight of the back of his dark blonde head.  His arms were stretched straight behind him, supporting him in a relaxed lean on the ground.   Nola was sitting inside his outstretched legs, cross-legged, with one delicate hand up on his knee; a family of two.  Neith wished she’d had a chance to apologise again before today.

Team Elle took a seat on the grass near the back and huddled together.  Elle looked to Neith, crinkly-eyed and kind before tweaking Neith’s earlobe.  She must’ve missed some lotion.  It didn’t irritate her the way it might have if Lucienne had done the same. 

Jamin and a tall, handsome woman close to him in age, stood at the front of the field – or at least where everyone was facing.  The goal netting was their immediate backdrop, with shimmering water and untamed hillside beyond that.  Jamin was holding a megaphone. The woman had a clipboard in front of her, a whistle around her neck, and roving eyes.  Her rovers settled on Neith briefly.  She forced a small smile.  She continued to look around, her chin bouncing to suggest she was counting.  Once satisfied, she turned to Jamin with the clipboard outstretched.  Was this assistant also Jamin’s wife?  Jamin took the clipboard, and handed the woman the megaphone.  Oh.  The woman switched it on, clapped its opening once, and then began; “Welcome, families and friends!”  All stirring and chatting halted and eyes were directed to the woman Neith could now see was the master of ceremonies.

“Our opening waiata today will be led by…” The woman looked down at her list, “Ruth Snow.”  Ruthie released her hold on Neith and made her way to the front. Neith realised only now that it was gone that her hand had remained there all along.  For a second, Neith hadn’t registered she knew a Ruth Snow.

Ruthie took the megaphone and announced the title of a song Neith had heard the family sing at home.  Amos clapped.  Ruthie was so far away.  Neith’s left side felt exposed.  She saw Ihaka close by, seated next to a woman holding a very small baby upright over her shoulder.  The bundle of baby was so small!  The mother must be Rose.  A man sat with his arms and legs around Rose like a big man cocoon.   Ihaka looked back at Neith and smiled with both rows of teeth and a hard squint, then turned to face Ruthie again.

Such a small bundle.

Neith could see Miles and Nola holding their thumbs up at Ruthie. 

Neith did her best to sing but was thankful she couldn’t hear her voice amid the throng.  She could hear Elle’s though – a strong alto, lending harmony to the melody.

Everyone clapped and cheered at the end of the song.  Neith leaned over towards Elle and asked, “Is that Jamin’s wife?”   Elle nodded, looking to the megaphone-bearer. “Ripeka.”  And Elle’s last name was Snow.  Neith had never asked, thinking perhaps surnames were redundant in a community so small. 

Ripeka flicked the switch again and ran a marshalling hand across Ruthie’s back. Ruthie took her leave from the spotlight zone.  “Thank you, Ruth.  This morning, we will cheer on our youngest players, right here, in a game of Hawk and Hen,” she paused for whoops and cheers of support for the pronouncement.  “Before y’all get up, let me tell you, that after the under-10s have had their turn on the field, our 10-19s will be throwing rakau here.  Following that, those 20 years of age and over will be playing zupaoro – or soccer, for those who prefer that name.  Jamin will organise your teams.  If you’re not on the field…” many began dragging themselves up, dusting off loose grass and moving to the sidelines now, through her words, “if you’re not on the field,” Ripeka said, louder – a few people paused mid-dust-off to look at her, “you’re on the sideline, cheering for whoever’s playing.  Everyone stays on the grass.” The megaphone let out a shrill whine, and Ripeka flicked its switch. 

Ruthie was back.  Neith felt good to have a warm wall back at her side.

Neith watched Miles take over centre-stage from Jamin and Ripeka.  He had a pile of colourful sashes diagonally over his head and one arm and a whistle around his neck.  Ihaka came up to his side and placed a hand on his shoulder.  Neith flinched.  Not his wife. 

Not my Nydia.

Davey and Amos played Hawk and Hen – with more children than Neith remembered from her taboo school visit.  She supposed Amos hadn’t been there, so it made sense other little ones weren’t factored in her count.  Davey was selected as hen.  He was apparently unconcerned with gender roles – he was proud and plucky to be an important part of the game!  Neith swelled to look at him.

Is this what having pride in a brother would feel like?

The adults backed away from the game space. Miles called some instructions through cupped hands as he did.  The remaining children looked to Mr Flynn then formed a line behind Davey, chicks holding onto each other’s clothing. A boy Ihaka chose stood opposite Davey.  His head was tipped forward, game face on.  Davey stretched his arms out wide as though forming a shield.  The chicks began giggling and squealing before the hawk even moved.  Miles blew a whistle and the game began. 

Neith looked along the opposing field line and saw most families talking, laughing – watching the game – only a few daring to look toward her instead.  She saw Tai, his arm around a woman, watching the game.  Did he have a chick in the mix?  Multiple chicks?  Maybe the determined hawk was Tai’s son.

Neith was surprised to see Amos and some of the other smaller participants so keen to play multiple rounds, considering how much time they’d spent loosed from the pack and scrambling back to safety.  Each break Amos rejoined the Snows he stood leaning on Neith’s lap, panting and happy.  Miles led things.  He didn’t seem angry now.  He seemed…

Many things she shouldn’t dwell on, until she knew if she was crushing the hopes of one population or destroying the peace of another; that might affect things.

As the last round played out, Neith found her eyes still on Miles, nonetheless.  She hadn’t noticed how good his shoulders were in the classroom.  They were good shoulders.

Elle could see where Neith was looking.  “If you want to blame anyone – for getting you deeper in this mess only to find how complicated things are – blame me.”  Elle was blinking, apologetic, and searching Neith’s face for feeling. 

“I don’t blame you for anything.”  Neith said, sincere.

“Not even for converting you to salmon?  Or butter?”

Neith sniffed a laugh.  “If we’re counting good things, I blame you plenty!”

“Like I say, it’s only temporary mess.  The messy parts tell me you both mean it.  If you didn’t really care and want it to be important – if you just liked the look of each other – it wouldn’t be hard.”  Elle patted Neith on the thigh.  She looked Neith in the eye. “I’m gonna say it; it’s all going to be okay.”

Neith wanted to believe.  She looked from Elle, to Miles – cheering, running around the group, scooping up littlies and urging them back into the line – directing tagged chicks with commiserative nods.  She felt a crush release around her sternum.  There was a resurrection of a winged storm, daring to hope.  She didn’t reveal its presence to Elle, settling instead for tipping her head onto her friend’s shoulder, staring straight ahead.

Things might not be okay.  But they might.  And they could definitely be okay for today.   She smiled as she rested her head against Elle. 

Now Tai was looking at her.  And he wasn’t happy.