2012 NZ Writers' College Short Story Competition Winner

'The Barrier' – by Timothy McGiven


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Sleet rain hammered the old hippie. It traced the chasms of his face, like a flash flood through a parched riverbed. He sat in his six-foot dinghy, stranded in the sand, patiently waiting on the tide.
 
As he gripped the oars, a storm petrel fell to the beach behind him. He watched the little bird pick itself up, fold its wings and stumble toward the tussock land, past the dunes. It knew what was coming. So did The Hippie; he had satellite TV.
 
The Hippie lived in a ’62 Leyland bus, by the estuary which bled into Awana Bay. A remnant of a naturalist revival in the late 70’s, he had stayed on Aotea, while the rest of them switched their tie dies for neckties. Forty years down the track, and he was a changed man, whose tomato plants now grew tomatoes.
 
“What are you doing?”
 
The Hippie swore, dropping a paddle. A flat-faced boy, with a big stick, was eyeing him up. He recognized the boy. He was the son of a pot farmer from up north by the Rangiwhakaea rocks.
 
“Piss off boy.”
 
“What are you doing?”
 
“I’ve never traveled,” said The Hippie, “So I’m off to Australia. Now piss off. You’re too young to be out in this weather.”
 
The boy nodded and finding no fallacy in the Hippie’s logic, headed up the dunes without a word. He was an odd kid. Nice mum though. Good baking.
 
The Hippie had been married once. It wasn’t one of his fondest memories. Colours fade, wounds heal, and memories can be forgotten, but for the life of him he couldn’t get that damn stain out of the carpet.
 
The Hippie shivered. He could feel the water lapping at the boat, working it free from the sand. He was ready for the ocean.  It stretched out before him as if to infinity. The Hippie understood infinity. It was only two steps past the horizon, right beside contentment. You can reach it if you watch yourself from a distance. That’s the problem with a body. It limits your point of view.
 
He often wondered how he had become such a sad little man. He put it down to old age and kidney stones.
 
His back straightened as he felt a sudden buoyancy embrace the dinghy. White water assaulted the little boat, steering it to the side. The Hippie dipped his oars into the shallows, nodded at the bow and started to row through the waves. He was heading for the horizon. Digging deep, he ascended the breakers. Sinews taut, aching back, he dug in deep with his shoulders. With each crest he came a little closer to the relative calm of open water.
 
And then it was still. The Hippie docked his oars, and sat silently in the drizzle, amidst the tasteless grays. The coast wound out behind him, like the lace trim of a giants hem. He could see the rocks where he had caught a kawhai the size of a goat. It was just last week. One of the island’s two policemen had joined him for dinner that night. They picked the ribs clean, drank diet coke and reminisced. They had both come to Aotea on the same ferry.
 
The Hippie had spent his first night on The Barrier under the stars, screaming at the moon with a bunch of twenty year olds. They sang and drank like only the directionless can. They didn’t know what the hell they were going to do when the sun rose. They had nothing but a patch of land and the hand luggage they’d brought with them on the ferry. But that was what made it so good. It was the beginning. They were finally living. Stitched on smiles were forgotten, left somewhere beyond the gasping waves.
 
He met his wife that night. He tried not to think about it too often. Nostalgia is like a drug. You get hooked and then reality becomes tasteless. She moved to Cambridge a while back. Last time he heard, she was living with an accountant, who wore bow ties and followed horse racing.
 
The sea was growing restless so The Hippie slouched lower into his dinghy and stared up into the clouds. Raindrops collided with his upturned face like liquid train wrecks. He felt strangely calm. This was how he had imagined it. He was forcing fate’s hand. If God wouldn’t come to The Hippie, then The Hippie would go to God.
 
He didn’t particularly mind which god. He’d settle for Michael Jackson’s white glove, if it brought him contentment. After all, he’d spent his whole life chasing contentment, along with fulfilment, purpose and all those other clichés.
 
He had chased love once too. It had led him on a merry dance. First down the rabbit hole, then through a multitude of legal processes. When he resurfaced he realized it was faster than he was. It also had teeth. Surgically sharp teeth. They were still the best years of his life.
 
Sea spray caressed his face, like the frozen fingers of a lifeless lover. The storm was coming for him. The Hippie started to tap his feet and hum softly to himself. His baritone notes were drowned out by the ocean’s throes. He was horizontal now.
 
“Come at me, you little shit.”
 
The water pooling below his spine made him tremble; it was an old man tremble, traversing his entire body. The Hippie cast insults and cracked words towards the clouds. He almost found it strange when they did not reply.
 
The rain began to sting his skin and his lips drew back in a smile, his anger subsiding. Folding his arms across his chest, he squared his shoulders, and closed his eyes. His bloodless hands were still.
 
The Hippie started to laugh.
 
Behind his eyelids, he was seven again. Tall men in black suits, and wet nosed women, holding handkerchiefs to their faces, surrounded him. The sun was shining outside, but he was inside the church hall, waiting in line. He took a flower from a wicker basket and tentatively approached the wooden box. He had to stand on tippy toes to peer over the lip and into the casket. Within, lay prickly Missus Adams the church organ player. Her eyes were closed, her hands were white, and her arms were folded across her chest.
 
He opened his eyes. The dinghy’s lip was nearly level with the surface of the water as if eager to taste the depths. He was still laughing, desperately so. Floating in his coffin, tossed about in the undulating swells, he kept laughing.
Desperately so.
 
The Hippie was going to die. But he didn’t want to die. He could make it back to shore if the currents cooperated. But The Hippie wanted to die.
 
In the end, he just lay there and laughed. It seemed the most appropriate course of action.
 
“Damn,” he whispered. He had forgotten to leave food out for his cat. It wasn’t really his cat. It was a stray that hung around the bus. He suspected it was hiding kittens in the engine block.
 
The Hippie was mildly surprised to discover that he was now floating in the water. The dinghy had fallen away, slinking down towards the ocean floor.
 
“Damn,” he said again, softly.
 
After three seconds of serenity he was lost in the waves. The Hippie was thankful for the silence, which enveloped him as he drifted this way and that, caught in conflicting currents. With bursting lungs, he took a breath of water and gave in to the dark.
 
***
 
The Hippie opened his eyes to a blinding light. He took a moment to realize that he was sprawled on a white sand beach, with the sun warm on his back. He watched in expectation as a pair of tanned feet approached.
 
“How was Australia?”
 
The Hippie eased himself to his feet and failing to hide his smile said, “Cheeky bastard aren’t you.” Then to the boy, “Now help me back to my bus.”
 
As the two figures hobbled down the beach, a storm petrel took to the sky and headed out to sea.

 


 

TimothyAbout Timothy McGiven


I'm nineteen and currently a student at Waikato University, where I am studying a Bachelor of Science majoring in Psychology. I have done one creative writing course at the uni which was helpful, but the person I would credit with pushing me in writing would be my English teacher from high school, Miss Arnold.

When I was in seventh form I won the Secondary School's Division for the Sunday Star Times Short Story Awards and was shortlisted for the Secondary School's Division of the Katherine Mansfield Award. Last year I won a Waikato University writing competition as well.

This competition is the first time I have got a placing when there is no age limit on the entrants. A big thanks to the New Zealand Writers' College and the judges for putting this on. It's a huge help to wannabe writers like myself.

 

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