© George Adams
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“The singularity has already happened. We are all immortal prisoners of the machine. Opposition is futile, but leave a message if you like.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave a message, but John’s answer machine beeped insistently.
‘Ah, John, Adam here. Call me back.’
I put my home phone down on its cradle and wondered at my agitation. Why did I feel this weird urgency to phone my brother-in-law?
* * *
I’d had a good day. My senior partner told me the Andersons were thrilled with my drawings for extensions to their home in Western Heights. I left work on the dot of five, walking outside into a bright autumn’s afternoon. The R’Nessa was pleasant to slip into, parked in the shade of our office building. I sat in the driver’s seat for a while, simply enjoying the comfort and spaciousness of it. Tracy had loved this car so much it had made me laugh. And now I could feel that love and joy when I sat behind the wheel.
My mind went back to the day Tracy had phoned about it from a car yard.
‘I’ve never heard of a R’nessa before,’ I said.
‘It’s just a standard Nissan engine, low mileage. Elegant but not flashy. White. It’s got a slightly high wheelbase and it’s so roomy and quiet and comfortable.’
She sounded excited, not just her usual warm but calm self.
'Price?' I asked.
'We should get it for eleven.'
Nearly three years later, the R’Nessa was home to many happy memories and Tracy’s quiet, gentle presence. We didn’t have pets and by the time Rebekah was born, this car had become a member of the family, a mechanical companion, for Tracy and me, taking us to places and times of love and laughter together.
I started the car up: very quiet, yes. Conscious of Tracy’s comforting touch enclosing my solitude inside the R'Nessa, I drove the two kilometres to Te Kotahitanga Day Care Centre to collect Rebekah, hardly aware of the world outside.
Rebekah was in good spirits. My little, blue-eyed, blonde fairy, she showed me the picture she’d drawn: blue sky, yellow sun, trees and grass and ducks on a lake.
‘Like the work of a seven year-old,’ said her caregiver.
Homeward bound, the traffic lights were in our favour. By five thirty, we were opening the front door of our Queens Avenue cottage.
After unloading our bags just inside the hallway, I bent down to Rebekah.
‘Letterbox,’ I whispered into her elven ear.
She led me back out of the front door. I squinted as we stepped from veranda's shadow into harsh sunlight. Her soft, little hand tugged warmly on my index finger. In that finger I could feel the freshness of the world through all her two year-old senses.
Underfoot, the pungent springiness of our lawn gave way to the hardness of concrete driveway. She led me to the letterbox, our afternoon ritual of reconnection after returning home.
Rebekah had called me 'Dadda' at four months. I hadn't understood how freakish that was. She was my first child. It had been the longest four months in my life. Now nearly two, her verbal age was five. At day care they had her in with the four year-olds. New parents would look at her, then at me. I’d shrug and say ‘she takes after her mum’. I was just getting an idea of how exceptional she was: tall for her age, too, but a skinny little pixie. My best mate, Glenn, was always asking when was I going to start feeding her.
So, there we were at the letterbox.
I picked her up on one arm, lifted the lid. She reached in.
Then, mail clutched in her tiny, slim fingers, I set her back down on her feet.
'Junk,' she said, handing me a pile of flyers. 'A proper newspaper. This looks like an important letter. Ooh, what’s this?'
I took it from her hand. When I next looked down at her face, I saw the perfect reflection of my perplexed expression.
'This is a postcard,' I said, 'an old-fashioned way of sending a quick hello to someone when you’re on holiday. There’s a picture of the holiday place on the front and just a little space to write on the back. You send it off like this, without an envelope.'
'Is it from the lady in the picture?' she asked.
For a moment I smiled, looking at the young woman in snorkel, mask and white bikini, swimming towards me.
'No. People make postcards to show off places where they want lots of people to go for their holidays, then they print off hundreds of them, so if you go there you can buy one and post it to someone back home. This one’s from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. See the colourful little fishes?'
I ran my fingers through Rebekah’s wispy blonde hair as she took the card and held it close to her face.
'This one’s got stripes,' she told me.
'Hmm. So it does.'
'Who sent us this postcard, Daddy? Auntie Libby?'
'No, Auntie Libby’s been back in New Zealand for a week or more. Back home, I think, here in Hamilton.'
'So, who’s it from?'
'Someone called Julie who seems to know me.'
'Not Auntie Julie?'
'No, another Julie. She writes that she’ll visit us.'
'She'll come to my birthday?'
'She doesn’t say.'
'Come inside, Daddy, and read it to me properly.'
Rebekah led me back inside, then down the hallway to the dining room at the rear of the house. The lean-to over the deck outside shaded us from the late afternoon sun.
I took an apple from the bowl on the bench dividing the kitchen from the dining room. I cut it and put one half on the dining table in front of Rebekah. She'd already placed the postcard, message–up, in front of my chair. I sat down and read the attractive, round writing out loud.
'Hi, Adam. I’m based at Hamilton Island a short while. (That Hamilton guy sure got around.) I’ll drop by when I get to NZ. Love, Julie.'
'It’s only to you,' Rebekah observed.
'I wish I knew how she knows me. Maybe she’s someone your mum knew.'
'But she knew not to write to Mummy: only to you. If she’s heard about Mummy, she must know about me.'
'Mmm,' I confirmed, quietly astonished by my wee daughter's sharp mind and how much she understood and accepted without sorrow or fear. But her main concern, understandably childish, was that the postcard wasn’t written to her as well as to me.
I couldn’t remember a Julie from any time in my life, apart from my older sister. This postcard Julie must be an old friend of Tracy.
I turned the card back over to the bright and glossy underwater picture, felt the warm water all around me: the colourful fishes drifting past; the young woman swimming towards me; her smile, her warmth, her delectably smooth, wet skin.
'Shall we go and see the ducks?' asked Rebekah, half an apple core on the table in front of her.
Queens Avenue is a quirky street, separated by one leafy, suburban hillside from the heart of Hamilton City. A pretty ribbon of well-maintained, mainly small, old homes: it separates the upmarket street to the east that skirts Lake Rotoroa, from the area of light industry and trades suppliers to the west. When Tracy and I moved in, our home was a two-bedroom 1940's weatherboard unit. Even after we took out a hefty mortgage and added a second floor and new kitchen and deck out the back we still called it our cottage, for that's the homely feel it had and still has.
Back from the four-kilometre walk around the lake, it was dinner, bath and bed for my weary young daughter and a quiet Friday evening for myself.
I went downstairs to the kitchen. It was nearly dark outside, our big grapefruit tree a black form against the purple remnants of sunset. I turned on the light and saw my reflection in the window: so gaunt, so weary, so alone at twenty-six. Suddenly, it was one of those stark, lonely evenings when Tracy's absence ripped through my body with pain and panic. In that strange moment I hungered to know anything about this postcard Julie, so I stepped into the dining room, took the home phone from its cradle on the dining room wall and rang my brother-in-law, John.
“The singularity has already happened. We are all immortal prisoners of the machine. Opposition is futile, but leave a message if you like.”
'Ah, John, Adam here. Call me back.'
It was dim in my lounge, but I left the lights off. I sank into the red leather couch. A sweet memory flash of Tracy telling me she’d bought this lounge suite in a half-price sale. But Tracy was gone and I had built myself a life that shielded me from strong emotions or thoughts that might trigger them. Except to love and care for Rebekah, for nearly two years, I'd been adrift: no real purpose or direction. By day my drafting and surveying work distracted me from my grief.
This postcard was niggling me.
I looked at the t.v., a vacant, dark rectangle. In my mind, memories collided: the life of love I had shared with Tracy, our happy home, Rebekah’s birth, Tracy gone so soon after. My eyes closed, I saw her coming home from her physiotherapist work in summer, in tee-shirt and shorts, her toned legs honey-tanned, the warm smell of her skin on a dry summer’s afternoon. Her clear, blue eyes had been so transparently loving, her lips, full, inviting. My whole being could be absorbed in her kiss.
Then my mind showed me a young woman in white bikini, swimming towards me in the warm water of the Great Barrier Reef.
I opened my eyes.
Outside, the street lamps came on. I took a deep breath. My lounge was still, quiet with faint smells of leather and wood. Would I be consoled best by wine or whisky, bed or bath I wondered.
Then a newish, red Toyota Corolla turned into my driveway.
Feeling my neck and shoulders tense, I closed my eyes again. I heard the car door open then close. The clack of high heels on the concrete drive turned to clunking on the wooden front porch.
The front door opened. I opened my eyes and turned my head. Tracy’s younger sister, Libby, was standing in the doorway, in a simple black summer dress: tall, slender, stunning. Even under the modest hallway light, her hair glowed pale blonde.
'Hello, sister-in-law,' I said, in controlled voice.
'Hello, Adam. My name’s Libby,' she answered brightly.
'I was just noting our relationship.'
'Ah, a relationship. What a lovely idea. Did you know it’s Friday night?'
She sat down beside me.
'Yes. It’s been a big week,' I said, trying to divert her blatant play at seduction.
'It’s rather dull in here,' she said, reaching across to flick on the wall lights. 'Shall we order in dinner?'
‘Rebekah and I have already eaten.’
'Any left over?'
'Sure. It’s ginger beef stir fry.'
I moved to get up, but Libby swivelled around and dropped her legs across mine, then lay back, settling her head on the cushion against the arm of the sofa.
'There’s no hurry, Adam.'
She pushed her legs down on me.
'I’ve brought Pinot Gris, which goes exceptionally well with ginger beef, and a Shiraz which alternates perfectly with Pinot Gris.'
I found myself on alert. This was the most forward Libby had ever been and she's not a big drinker either: more the kind of girl who makes a glass of wine last a couple of hours.
'You’ve given this quite some thought,' I said.
'There’s more room for spontaneity when you plan well.'
I was aware of my body responding to the intimate touch of her legs across my lap. I looked down at them, toned like Tracy's, but longer, a little slimmer. Despite my wariness, I stroked them with my finger tips.
It was a strange courtship. She'd begun, subtly, when Rebekah was about six months: lingering smiles and incidental touches. I'd been too confused to object. Part of me liked her attentions very, very much, but she was the younger sister of my wife. Now, I was still pretending my silence wasn't encouraging her. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. Or, maybe, I did just enough.
'Ooh, scratch, please,' she asked.
'I’m not scratching your legs!'
'Oh, go on, just lightly.'
Her voice, so like Tracy’s, a sweet torture for me.
I let my nails graze against her perfect skin and looked at her.
By four years Tracy's younger sister, Libby had the same light blonde hair and cool blue eyes, slender arms, elegant straight, broad shoulders, perfectly moulded clavicles, but Tracy’s nose had been straight while Libby’s was a pert little button.
Barely into her journalism degree, Libby had become the face, body and voice of KiwiBabz swimwear, sportswear and lingerie. Less than two years on now, she’d just finished her first lead role in a feature movie. Next week she'd be going to Cannes to promote the film, but right now she had a few days off: and here she was, legs draped over me, eyes closed, humming, as I ran my nails up and down her shins.
'Am I allowed to know about Immortal Conduct yet?’ I asked.
'Sure: embargo’s been off two days already. The trailer’s on YouTube.'
She opened her eyes and sat up, keeping her legs across mine.
'It’s a science fiction chick flick. I’m this old lady, but in a future where old people get to be restored, physically, to their twenties again.’
‘So, how old are you, in this movie?'
'A hundred and three. I was born in 1956 and it’s 2059, eleven years after the singularity.'
'The singularity. John uses it in his answer phone message. What is it?'
'It’s when we’ve built computers with as much thinking power as the whole human race. Every field of research gets accelerated. Our genes get tweaked so the newborn can live for thousands of years. The process is perfected for restoring the mitochondria and telomeres in the already living, so everyone is brought back to health and youth.'
'So far, so good.'
‘I’ve been married for seventy-five years. We’ve lived for decades in this lovely big house with an acre of gardens on a hillside looking out to sea.'
'But every day has become like every other, so we decide to travel the world for a while. We accidentally get involved in some secret stuff and learn lots about the changes being made to our world: the migrations to other planets; the machines’ programme of depopulation. It changes us. There’s more to it, but I won’t spoil it for you.'
'Something exciting, something touching for our sad, old world?'
I hadn’t meant to sound sarcastic or disinterested. She gave me a hurt look, which reminded me more of Rebekah than Tracy.
'What gets you excited, Adam? Whatever touches you anymore? You're so distant! You’re so inflexible. Nothing but the grieving husband, doting father and reliable worker. When are you going to be ready to start living again?'
Her glare was hot, while I searched for a reply.
‘I hurt or just feel numb all the time, Libby. There’s no room for excitement.'
She gave me a look that was half annoyance, half pleading: then lifted her legs from my lap and put her feet down on the floor.
'I’ve tried to help you be happy, Adam, since Tracy died. I wanted you even before you married Tracy. I love Rebekah. I could be a good, steady mum for her. You can’t go on seeing me just as Tracy’s kid sister. I’m twenty-one.'
I sighed. I could easily lust after Libby, even fall in love, but it felt frightening as well as wrong. I didn’t trust I could sustain the energy, the joy, the sexual excitement to really partner her. I was hollow, sad, drained. I didn’t want to pretend to be what she wanted nor frustrate her with my melancholy. And, at twenty-six, I wasn’t convinced anymore that twenty-one is a particularly sensible age.
'Libby,' I said flatly, 'part of me wants you. You’ve been a wonderful aunt for Rebekah but I can’t give myself to you. You’re my dead wife’s sister. The circumstances are wrong.'
It had sounded like a speech: pompous, affected.
‘They’re calling me the most beautiful woman in New Zealand movies, Adam. Everything going my way, but all I want is to live with you and Rebekah. Isn’t that enough fucking circumstances?'
Her voice was taut. Tears glistened at the base of her eyes: delicate liquid trapped and quivering between her eyelashes, then splashing into fragments when she blinked. I felt no sympathy or guilt, only frustration and an odd enchantment as I watched a rill of tear-borne mascara trace down her perfect right cheek.
Again, from her, that look, both angry and imploring.
Then she lowered her eyes and spoke again.
‘All this movie and modelling stuff, it’s happened so suddenly. I know I’m ambitious and it’s what I want but sometimes it all just seems unreal. I make out like I’m lapping it all up. Sometimes it really is exciting, but, Adam, I’m not happy, not in the simple way I was happy when I was a girl. Underneath, I just don’t feel good. I like the movies and modelling but I want you, too, something wholesome and stable. I’m really sure about this. I want you now as much as when I was just an ordinary girl and life was simple, before I..., before Tracy’s accident, before the movies.’
'You’ve never been ordinary, Libby,’ I answered. ‘and you’ll always be my wife’s sister to me. I’m not exactly a happy person to be around, anyway. You’d have a much better chance with another guy.’
‘But what would be the point of Tracy dying? You and I can make each other..’
Suddenly, I saw a way out of this emotional impasse.
‘There is no point for Tracy dying. Anyway, I need to tell you there’s someone else,’ I said.
I saw her startled look before she slumped forward on the couch, her head falling between her knees.
'You sure picked your moment to drop that shock bomb,' she eventually said, sitting up and glaring at me. 'Still, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I hope she isn’t just one of those compassionate, rescuer types and you’re her latest sorrowful, lame duck.'
She looked back up into my eyes.
‘Anyone I know?’ she asked.
Then, ‘No, it makes no difference. You’re a fool, Adam. She can’t love you more than I would.’
With that, she stood up, smoothed down the hem of her dress.
‘Shall I come round in the morning?" she asked, 'catch up with Rebekah?'
Of course,' I agreed.
I followed her to the front door. She slipped on her shoes. There was a dull chink when she picked up the two bottles of wine she had placed beside the door. She stepped outside, then turned to me. Her gaze was cool.
'I think you've got it all wrong, Adam,' she said. ‘Why can’t you even give us a go first? Don’t you see you’re hurting us both?’ and she turned and walked to her car.
Silence again. I went to the kitchen, decided to make cocoa and have an early bed.
‘Older sister dies, take on younger sister.’ I said out loud to myself, but I shook my head.
I paused at the kitchen bench, resting my hands palm-down on its cool marble surface.
‘Am I really just being rigid?’ I asked myself. ‘Can’t I just go with my instincts and deal with the consequences?’
I did lust after Libby. I envied her, too. She did have a sharp mind. She was much more socially adept than me, elegant yet warm, so able to turn just the right face and the right words on anyone to get the most out of them. And I didn’t doubt she really would make an excellent, down-to-earth mother for Rebekah. She grew up on a farm. She already was unaffected, nurturing and protective with Rebekah, always ready to change a nappy when she had been smaller.
And she wasn’t just sexy, she was very, very sexual. In one of her early, short films, there’s a brief scene of her handcuffed naked to a chain from the ceiling, just able to stand with her arms stretched up, then threatened with a whip. The first time I saw this movie was at her home, Libby and I sitting on the couch, Rebekah in bed in the spare room after we had all had dinner together.
‘I so wanted to be whipped,’ she said at that scene’s conclusion, while I was still sitting stiffly and blushing. ‘I’ve set up a chain and handcuffs in my home gym.’
She paused the movie and I allowed her to take me down to the gym. It was disturbing, seeing the chain really there, bolted into the ceiling, the leather-lined handcuffs hanging from the other end. When she handed me the slim silver handle of a whip with short rubbery strands, I said ‘No, Libby, no.’
‘Well, that wasn’t the effect I was going for,’ she said and gave a shrug before turning out the gym lights and leading me back down the hall.
I woke Rebekah soon after that and took her home. I had a lousy night’s sleep. But I acquired my own copy of that short film within the week and I watched that scene of Libby strung naked to the ceiling many, many times before I felt unaffected by it. Even thinking of Libby climbing a ladder and drilling a hole in her ceiling, bolting up the chain and attaching the handcuffs was devastatingly arousing.
But fantasy and real life are different. Apart from the wrongness of it, I didn’t feel up to a life with Libby. I was scared of the power she’d have over me and the exciting lifestyle she seemed destined for. Tracy had been the quietly efficient and caring sort. Libby had brought me solace but she thrived on excitement and attention. I needed peace. Libby said she wanted what Tracy and I had had together. I doubted I could give myself so fully ever again.
I had just poured my cocoa when the phone rang.
'Adam, here,' I answered.
'John, thanks for calling back. Listen, I got a postcard from someone called Julie, maybe a friend of Tracy. Any idea who she is?'
'No. Not unless she’s someone Tracy knew from her student exchange in Canada.'
'Did Tracy never tell you about Canada? She was there most of a year. Vancouver. Did her good. At least she was a much nicer sister when she came back. But, yeah, she hardly talked about Canada with us either.'
'Didn’t mention a Julie?'
'No, but that would be it.'
'Up to anything tonight? I’m playing at the Feather later.'
'Sorry, Rebekah’s with me.'
'Okay. See you next time.'
Just then I heard a door open at John’s end, then Libby’s voice.
'Ooh - that Adam Peters is so infuriating, I could explode!'
'Libby’s turned up here. She’s in a real snot with you,' John whispered down the phone.
'Is that him on the phone? Warning you I’m upset I suppose?' Libby snapped.
'We’re comparing notes on a girl called Julie.'
'So, she has a name!'
A brief silence. I could picture Libby, hands clenched, glaring at John. She’d obviously got past shock and moved on to hurt and anger.
'I think I’d better go,' John said to me.
'Thanks, John,' and I hung up.
‘Well, Julie,' I said out loud to myself, 'whoever you are, you’re official now.'
'Hello, Auntie Libby!' called Rebekah, with that fresh brightness that always makes me smile.
Rebekah held up her arms to Libby, who stood at the front door, bright morning sunlight behind her.
'Hello, my sweet, young princess.'
Libby reached down to Rebekah.
She did not look at me but her bold cleavage, barely contained by her sleeveless, clinging, blue top sent a challenge my way.
'I’m not a princess!' said Rebekah.
'My mistake,' Libby conceded, briefly turning her smile to me.
'She speaks so well! She’s not even two yet!'
'Yes, she’s a precocious little madam. The doctors at the Child Development Centre are amazed.'
Libby took Rebekah into her arms.
'Come and see my trampoline,' Rebekah insisted.
'Wow, are you big enough for a trampoline already?'
‘Come and see!”
Rebekah wriggled down and took Libby’s hand.
I followed them through the house, out the back door, across the deck and onto the lawn.
This should be Tracy, I thought.
'Whoa! It’s still a bit damp from the dew out here, Princess!' said Libby.
'I’m not a princess!'
‘Whoops, I forgot.’
Libby lifted Rebekah onto the trampoline.
'She feels so light and bony, like a little nymph!' Libby said.
Rebekah held onto Libby’s hands and started jumping on the edge of the mat, her wee body hardly moving it, her long blonde hair flying wildly in the warm air.
'It’s a good bit of flat lawn you’ve got here,' Libby said to me.
'Tracy had this space marked out for a trampoline.'
Rebekah had let go now and was happily bouncing towards the trampoline's centre.
'Her coordination’s amazing,' said Libby.
'Tea? Coffee?' I asked.
'Weak, black tea, please.'
I turned back to the house.
'I loved her, too,' Libby said quietly.
I turned back to face her, annoyed she just couldn’t let things rest.
Libby turned to Rebekah.
'And as for this little princess...'
'Oh, Auntie Libby. I’m NOT a princess!'
Later that morning we drove beside autumn-dry but still green, rolling pasture, to Karioi, our lushly-forested craggy-rimmed mountain on the Waikato coast. Here my parents-in-law have a barely economic but spectacularly beautiful farm, sloping right down to the Tasman Sea. The world was fresh and calm, blue and green. Warm smells of dry grass and aromatic manuka.
Libby and I must have looked to the world like a young couple out for a drive with their pre-school daughter.
Libby stretched out her legs beside me. Perfect legs, such a short, denim skirt.
'I do like this car of yours: so roomy and quiet and comfortable. You must be glad you didn’t sell it after Tracy’s accident.'
‘Tracy found it. We had some great times in it. Besides, it saved Rebekah’s life. Tracy left the engine and the air conditioning going.'
‘I remember Tracy showing me how the front seats swivel round so you can have a picnic in the car,’ said Libby. ‘She made me laugh, so excited about a car.’
The tarmac ran out but the R’Nessa, with its high wheelbase, glided over the gravel, the ruts and bumps. The road twisted back and forth around the mountain, under a clear March sky. I felt infused with a peaceful energy at the views over the low canopy of manuka trees down to the ocean, flat like a sparkling blue mirror. There’s a quiet joy in the nature of Karioi.
Then we passed the parking area for the lookout over Te Toto Gorge and the dazzling Tasman Sea. Just around the bend was the spot where the tyre had burst.
I stopped the car. The silence felt empty and vast. Rebekah was asleep in her car seat in the back. Libby sat upright beside me, her hands on her knees. I rested my head on the steering wheel.
The Sun was gentle on the side of my face. There was a faint smell of warm gravel and clay.
I felt no tears. For the first time, I felt calm and happy. Tracy was there with me, smiling, reminding me of times we had shared exploring the gorge and the mountain behind it.
Why had Tracy driven over here so soon after the birth? Her parents had told her to wait a couple more days. She didn’t even tell me she was going.
Not even ten minutes to her parents’ place, late afternoon, a hot day for this time of year. She’d bounced onto a sharp rock and got a puncture. No other traffic, no house for more than a kilometre: she lifted the spare wheel out of the car then started bleeding. She left one day-old Rebekah in the car to go out on the grassy promontory overlooking Te Toto Gorge, hoping to get reception for her mobile phone away from the mountain.
That’s what we'd figured out and how the coroner saw it too.
I put the R'Nessa back into drive and we continued along the winding clay and gravel road.
My in-laws’ place. Down the steep driveway we went, through an avenue of manuka trees, opening to blue sea and sky ahead. On a broad knoll of grass, stood the old farmhouse, the sea only fifty metres beyond but a good ten metres below.
Keith and Kathleen are both in their mid-fifties, but you’d take them for late thirties. Slim and fit both of them, Kathleen has dark auburn hair and green eyes that oldest daughter Susan inherited. Keith is more obviously the blond, blue-eyed father of Libby and granddad of my little girl.
Their smiles spread across all three of us as we got out of the car.
'Hello, Nan and Granddad,' called Rebekah in her piping young voice. 'Are you coming to my birthday party?'
'I believe we are,' replied Kathleen, bending down to pick Rebekah up.
Keith stroked Rebekah’s head.
'Of course we’re coming,' he said, then turned to me.
'I’m just about done cleaning the boat. Come and keep me company while the girls get lunch ready.'
The two of us ambled over to the shed where his boat sat on its trailer.
'How’s everything going?' he asked.
‘I’m doing okay. Rebekah’s a happy girl. The university's very interested. Seems there are only three or four other children anything like her worldwide. They're asking for a DNA sample.'
'Hmm. Make them wait, I say.’
Keith shifted from one foot to the other.
'Y’know, Adam, Kathleen and I have noticed Libby has her eyes on you. We want you to know we wouldn’t be troubled if something came of it. She’s turned down a few other young guns.'
'Thanks. Libby's looked after me and Rebekah, but I honestly don’t think I could keep up with her, even if it’s what she thinks she wants.’
‘Tracy settled down well enough.'
'But Tracy always was a calm sort, even when I first met her at end of Seventh Form.'
'Tracy was quite a wild child in her early teens.'
'Before she spent that year in Canada?’ I asked.
'Yeah, she turned fifteen over there. Bright girl, she was younger than the other kids in Sixth Form.'
'Did she ever mention another girl in Canada, called Julie?'
No. The girl in the family she stayed with was Sarah. Still, Tracy would’ve met lots of other girls. She spoke a little about Sarah when she got home, but I don’t remember any other names. She didn’t keep in touch with anyone over there.'
Keith broke into a smile.
'I wonder if Julie was that girl in the family she went on summer holiday with. Tracy’s host mum wrote to us about it. She reckoned Tracy and this other girl looked so similar that someone over there introduced them to each other. It sounds like they had a bit of fun pretending to be identical twins. Maybe Kathleen remembers the girl’s name.'
Just my luck, I thought, Postcard Julie is a Tracy lookalike.
‘Any photos of them together?'
'No. Tracy was like the rest of our family. Don’t go much for photos, apart from Libby, of course.'
It didn’t look like the boat needed any more cleaning but Keith hosed it down all the same. Then we went back to the rear of the house for lunch on the deck looking out to sea.
I didn’t find a good moment and I didn’t really see much point asking Kathleen about Julie. As always, we had a wonderful day out on the farm by the beach, Libby and I easily ignoring the previous evening’s tension between us.
The drive home was under a gorgeous sunset: light cumulus clouds out to sea and just beginning to drift directly above us. Where the sun dipped down into the placid ocean, the sky was still clear. We stopped at a lay-by just past Manu Bay to watch the slowly unfolding symphony of colours on the clouds’ wispy-fleeced bellies.
'What's that?' I asked Libby, pointing to a small, bright globe that moved horizontally, just below the clouds, out to sea.
'A weather balloon?' she suggested.
'Below the clouds?'
'Model helicopter? Drone?'
'Far too quiet, even this far away.'
We watched it move inland to our west, disappearing behind a headland.
'It's a Hodrin Orb,' said Libby, 'heading into Te Toto Gorge.'
'Rulers of the Pleiades. Guardians of the galaxy. They’ve left their Orbs on Earth to watch us, waiting for when we reach our Singularity. Then they’ll call the Hodrin back and they’ll reveal themselves to humanity.'
I almost laughed but she looked so serious.
'You're strange, Libby.'
* * *
Back home, Rebekah pleaded for Auntie Libby to bathe her and read a bedtime story, 'Hairy MacLary, because there’s no princess in it!'
Secure and content, she was soon asleep.
Libby walked into the sitting room, took the glass I handed up from my chair.
'Cheers,' she said, sitting down on my lap.
'Libby,' I began.
'Shh,' she said. 'We both know where we stand. You don’t want to betray Tracy or confuse Rebekah when she’s older. I wish you could see beyond that.'
She’d hooked me in again: this same conversation.
‘Libby, you’re at the beginning of an exciting career. Why would you be bothered with a homely architect like me?'
'Who knows how far I’ll really go in the movies?’ she replied. ‘And haven’t you noticed you’re a well-grounded, lovely guy: tall, dark and handsome to boot?'
'I’m only just six foot and my hair is kind of mid-brown.'
'With golden highlights in the sun.'
'When I had a beard it was ginger.'
'Ooh, and your pubes? Can I see?'
I sat very still.
Eventually she sighed.
'Okay, I know I push too hard. I just wish you could see, underneath it all, I’m more like Tracy than you realize. I can do loving and dependable. Give me a chance. Put the Tracy’s little sister thing in the past. Can’t you see me, Adam? Can’t you see me?'
'I can see you, Libby. I can feel you. I can smell you. But when I see you I see Tracy right beside you.'
She sighed again.
'How about I dye my hair black?'
'Might look nice but it wouldn’t help.'
She downed her glass of wine and reached for the bottle on the coffee table.
'Rebekah’s birthday plans?' she asked.
'I don’t think we’ll have a kiddies’ party as such, just a family get–together with cake and toys. Grownups can play at being kids and they don’t make as much mess. Julie and her family are coming up from Wellington.'
'Saturday fortnight, lunchtime.'
'Good. That means, this Saturday, you can be my escort at Immortal Conduct’s first screening in Auckland.'
My silence was confirmation, caught again in the painful pleasure of being with Libby.
Half way through the week, Thursday I think, another postcard came. This time it was from Sydney, one of those shots along the harbour to the Bridge, Opera House to the left.
‘Hi, me again. Sydney’s not my scene. ‘prefer the great outdoors. ‘looking forward to catching up with you. ‘hope Tracy explained we used to look a lot alike. ‘wouldn’t want you freaking out. Love, Julie.’
So, John and Keith had guessed right.
How was I going to feel? Someone who looked like Tracy, but a stranger to me.
* * *
That Friday evening, Libby took little persuading into coming with me and Rebekah for dinner at Glenn and Fiona’s place.
I first met Glenn when my family moved to Hamilton near the end of my Seventh Form. Fiona was his girlfriend and Tracy was her best friend.
We got to Glenn and Fiona’s around six o’clock and, soon, Glenn and I were leaning on the rail of the rear balcony, watching the Waikato River flow green and sluggish below the steep canopy of tree ferns behind the house. Inside, we could hear Rebekah laughing as she played with Glenn and Fiona's wee lad, Hamish. Deeper inside, we could hear Libby in conversation with Fiona, preparing dinner and watching over the two children.
'It's been a warm day,' Glenn said, raising his beer. 'Plans for the weekend?'
'I’m going up to Auckland with Libby tomorrow evening for the premier of her film.’
Glenn took a swig.
‘You rootin’ her yet?' he asked.
I winced at his crassness.
'Not an option, Glenn. She’s my sister-in-law. My wife’s younger sister.'
'Doesn't seem to bother her though. She’s obviously interested. Even you must’ve noticed she’s bloody hot.'
I made no response.
'Something else you’d rather talk about?' he asked. ‘How’s that girly car Tracy picked for you going?’
'I’m perfectly happy with the R’Nessa,’ I said ‘Tracy made a good choice. Okay, we’ve done the weather, global warming and oil spills and now you’ve insulted my car. How about the kids or mortgage interest rates?'
'So, what kind of mortgage rate are you paying?' he asked.
I glared at him.
He turned back to watch the river below.
'Actually, there is something I’ve been wanting to ask you and Fiona,' I said.
'I’ve been getting postcards from someone called Julie who’s on holiday in Oz and coming this way. I’m pretty sure she’s an old friend of Tracy. Libby’s dad thought they might have met when Tracy went to High School in Canada in Sixth Form. Did Tracy ever talk about a Julie?'
Inexplicably, Glenn stiffened, but recovered quickly.
'I didn’t really know Tracy back then, Adam. I possibly met her at a couple of Fifth Form parties. I don’t think Fiona had anything to do with her until they were in Seventh Form. I don’t remember any talk about Canada.'
'I’ll ask Fiona when we go in.'
'Sure. She’d know more than me.'
Inside, the table was set and Fiona was serving up salmon and roast kumara, while Libby placed a spinach and hazelnut salad in the centre of the table. Hamish and Rebekah were sitting remarkably still, watching a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD.
'Have you solved all the problems of the world, out on the balcony?' asked Fiona, as Glenn and I sat at the table.
'I wish,' I replied.
'A Vilagrad Three Brothers Malbec or a Rosemount Shiraz?' asked Libby.
'Er, there should be some Steinlager in the fridge,' replied Glenn. 'What are these problems we’re supposed to have been solving?'
'Oh, just the usual: global warming and recession, why the TV news is never about what’s really going on, where the next earthquake or oil spill’s going to be. Stuff like that.'
'We did talk a bit about a girl named Julie,' said Glenn, walking into the kitchen and opening the fridge.
'Julie?' asked Fiona, turning her head away as if something in the kitchen had caught her attention.
'Ah, Adam’s mystery postcard girl,' Libby put in, peeking cheekily my way.
I shot an accusing look at her.
John told me about your postcard and so did Dad,' Libby chimed back.
I turned to Fiona.
She looked back at me with a warm expression and suddenly I was looking into Tracy’s face. Or, at least, into yet another face I had never before realized was so like Tracy’s. Fiona’s hair was a slightly darker blonde and cut differently. Her cheeks had no dimples, but she had such similar eyes, such a similar jaw line: her teeth, her lips so much like my dead wife’s.
Birds of a feather, I thought to myself.
'Are you all right?' she asked.
'Yes, I’m fine. Let me tell you about these postcards.'
'Oh, more than one now,' put in Libby, pouring Malbec.
'Yes, one from Queensland - one from Sydney. Addressed to me, but I had no idea who Julie was when the first one came. Did Tracy ever mention a Canadian Julie to you, Fiona?'
'Tracy didn’t really talk much about Canada. I got the feeling something didn’t go so well for her over there.'
'Maybe that's why she never even mentioned Canada to me.'
'Maybe we didn’t know Tracy as well as we thought,' added Libby, drawing a stern look from Fiona.
'Well, looks like I’ll just have to wait ‘til Julie turns up,' I concluded.
Fiona, Libby and Glenn exchanged furtive glances. It's not my nature to push people into telling me what they're thinking, so I let it go. Besides, Fiona was bringing the rest of our dinner over and it looked great.