2014 NZ Writers' College Short Story Competition Fifth Place


'Tell Him He's Dreaming' - by Matthew Griffiths

When you look back on events in your life, sometimes they seem like part of a dream…
    “Energy’s only going to get more expensive. You face north. You could have a tiled floor to soak up the sun and double glazing to retain the heat at night. You can put some of your nice Middle Eastern rugs inside away from the windows, and a wood burner for winter,” said Brian.
    Brian and Mike stood on the vacant lot, overlooking the sea.
    Heck. We should get double glazing at our place too.
    “Ok. I’ll think about it.” Mike looked out over the cliff to the beach where the surf rolled in. “This is what I’ve always dreamed of Brian, and finally we have the money to do it. Those years working in Saudi are finally going to pay off.”
    Brian turned his gaze to the beach. A lone surfer was paddling out to the break.
    Mike pointed. “That will be me soon, every single day. Just like university, remember?”
    Mike’s new job was building and asset manager at a large technical training institute fifteen minutes’ drive from the beach. Easy work for an engineer with his experience, perfect location and an ideal lifestyle for a middle-aged surf junkie. And the kids could go to a local school and have a normal life again.
    “Every single day.”
    I should have been an architect! I should be an architect. Green is the way of the future. It has to be. I’ve got the civil and structural engineering background. I just need a bit of the design stuff, and some practical experience on real projects and I can become a sustainable building consultant. Have my own business. Really do something to help the planet. Yes!
    Brian woke up with a start.
    He stared at the dark ceiling and thought it through. Maybe he could do a diploma in one year, do some volunteer projects to learn the ropes of alternative building techniques, and then set up on his own.
    It was feasible. The mortgage was under control, they had some savings. That and Sue’s job at the bank was enough to pay the bills for a year or two.
    She rolled over next to him and adjusted the duvet.
    Brian whispered, “Sue, are you awake?”
    “Yeah, just for three weeks. There’s a volunteer sustainable building project in Yunnan province. Remember Sue, how we always wanted to go there?”
    “We were young then; it’s totally different now.”
    “The kids can come too; you can all go sightseeing, trekking, souvenir shopping, whatever you want.”
    “We can’t afford it Brian. I’m a loans officer, not branch manager. My salary isn’t enough to support the kids, your study and family holidays overseas.”
   “Living the dream mate, living the dream.” said Mike.
    Brian looked around the lounge of the newly completed house. Mike had gone for floor-to-ceiling windows, and half the lounge roof was glass too.
    “The view comes right in.” Mike said waving his arms toward the beach.
    He’d skipped the double glazing.
    “Too expensive man, and we can afford the power bill. Great sun shades though, look at this.” Mike pushed button on a remote control and dark shades slid down covering the roof glass.
    He pushed another button. As the shades receded Brian saw leaves accumulating on the roof. Mike saw what he was looking at.
    “I get a gardener in every week to clean them off,” Mike said smiling. “I’m too busy surfing in my spare time.”
    He turned to Brian “How’s Sue and the kids?”
    “Good, good. Well mostly. Sue and I are going through a bit of a rough patch.”
    Mike raised his eyebrows.
    Brian sighed. “She’s not keen on my change of career. I’m half through my study now and after a few more volunteer stints I’ll be ready to start up my own consultancy. Hopefully she’ll mellow out then.”
    “It’s totally irresponsible!” screamed Sue.
    “How can you say that?” said Brian. “You understand the environmental issues. We’ve got solar hot water and a compost bin but there’s so much more we could do…”
    “We’re doing our bit. Sustainability is all very well, but your hippie friends can’t pay for consultants. Can’t you see that? How are they going to pay our mortgage and buy clothes for the kids?”
    He looked past her at their children in the car.
    “If you wanted to have a mid-life crisis you could have hired a racing car and driven around the track, or bought me some fishnets or something.”
    “But no, you have to chuck your job, spend all our savings and leave us all behind while you go gallivanting around being Mr Save the World.”
    “Sue, please. Let’s talk about this. I only just got back.”
    “I’m past talking. You have ten days until the tenants move in. It’ll stay rented until you come to your senses or I lose patience.”
    She got into the car and slammed the door. Danny and Jeanne waved glumly out the back window as she pulled away.
    Brian watched and waved until the car was out of sight. He walked into the empty house and sat down on the floor in the lounge. His chest tightened and tears ran down his cheeks.
    “Great work everyone.” shouted the head of the building team. “Let’s call it a day.”
    Brian stood on the scaffolding in the late afternoon sun and wiped his brow. The rammed earth wall was now two metres high. It was the future food hall of a commune about an hour from the city.
    “Intentional community.” he was corrected. “Commune is so 1960’s. We’re not a bunch of hippies you know.”
    He smiled. Working together with others on something meaningful was becoming addictive. This was his fourth volunteer building stint and he enjoyed it more than the study and, he thought a little worriedly, more than sitting in an office designing things as well.
     “Fancy a swim?” asked Adriana looking up at him, shading her eyes from the sun. “We’re all going in.”
    “Ok, I’ll be right there.”
    Brian climbed down and placed his tools under a corrugated iron lean-to next to the new building.
    At the swimming hole a dozen bodies splashed and swam in the river. Adriana pulled off her t-shirt and bra, pushed her shorts down her legs and waded in.
    Brian looked down, blushing.
    “Bashful are we?” Adriana laughed and splashed him.
    He took off his shirt and followed her in, keeping his shorts on.
    Later, on the porch of the old farm house which was the original building of the community, the group sat singing and drinking home brew.
    He felt light-headed, unsure whether it was the beer or the day working in the sun.
    He mumbled goodnights and went to the guest room to sleep. He crawled into the bed and laid his head down on the lumpy old pillow.
    The door creaked open and a shadowy figure stood in the doorway.
    “Feel like some company?” Adriana slipped off her clothes and climbed in beside him.
    Mike paced around a different, much smaller, lounge. “Less is the new more buddy!”
    “How’s the new job?” Brian asked
    “Same old, same old. Managing a shopping mall building is pretty much the same all over. A lot less money to play with but fewer headaches than in Saudi I suppose. And I still get to surf on the weekends. It’s not too far to drive. Petrol prices suck though.”
    The technical institute had closed down, a victim of government budget cuts. Mike’s Saudi savings had gone up in smoke in the global financial crisis too.
    “A finance company worth hundreds of millions just disappeared into thin air. Unbelievable”
Brian nodded. “Family doing ok?”
    “Yeah. We thought about going back to Saudi, but the kids are settled now and Carol likes being close to her family again.”
    “This financial crisis is making life difficult for everyone.”
    “Yeah. It sucks. But hey, there’s still surfing!”
    “Ok. I’ll call again soon.” Brian turned off the phone.
    Kids seem to be doing ok. At least they’re still talking to me.
    He walked out of the old farm house and looked over the grassed area where several children were playing near the cluster of new rammed earth buildings. He was starting to feel part of the place. But he knew Sue would never want to bring the kids to live here.
    “Looks great doesn’t it?” Adriana said. She stood beside him and draped an arm around his shoulders.
    “It does.” He nodded.
    “I was thinking….” she said, “you could do your consulting from here. It’s close enough to the city. Join us in the community.”
    “Join you? It’s a great place but I’m not sure I completely fit in.”
    “Of course you do; we would love to have you here…. I would love to have you here.”
    She leaned closer and rested her chin on his shoulder.
    “Maybe one day we could add to the football team down there.”
    Brian looked at her and then looked away.
    “Sorry, is this a bit too much?”
    “No… Well, maybe.” he said. “There’s something you should know.”
    She raised a finger to his lips. “I know about your family Brian and it’s a great place for kids. You can bring them down here sometimes. I’d like to meet them.”
    He shook his head. “That’s not it. You’re young and having a couple of kids... it’s only natural for you to want that.”
    “You’re not saying you’re too old, are you?”
    “No, no the problem is…” he took a deep breath and exhaled. “I can’t give you what you want.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “I had the ‘snip’ years ago Adriana. I can’t have more kids.”
    And I’m not sure I want to anyway.
    “Dad, I got the prize! The tech class competition. I got first.” Danny yelled into the phone.
    “That’s great son. Well done.” Brian said.
    “Thanks for your help; the solar oven idea was great. Mum’s even using it for cooking dinner and stuff.”
    “It was all your work mate. Hey, how about we make some for your cousins for Christmas?”
    “Yeah, ok, cool. Umm, here’s Jeanne.”
    “Ok. See you.”
    “Hi sweetie. How are you?”
    “How’s school going?”
    He finally remembered to ask an open question. “What else is happening?”
    “Nothing much.”
    “We both think what you’re doing is cool. We just wish you were here with us.”
    He exhaled. “Yeah, me too. Hey, Jeanne?”
    “Who was that who answered the phone?”
    “Mum’s friend Steve.”
    After she hang up he opened up his laptop and scanned job ads.
    Structural engineer, CBD location, only if I really have to,
    Architectural draughting, Inner suburbs, maybe,
    Technology tutor, part time, sustainability focus, hey…
    Danny and Jeanne shouted down the line. “Happy Birthday!”
    “Ouch! That hurt my ear.” Brian grinned. “Thanks guys.”
    “Happy birthday Brian.”
    “Thanks Sue.”
    “Actually the kids were wondering if you’d like to come to dinner tonight.”
        “Yes.” he said instantly. “I’d like that.”
    “I’ll cook one of your favourites and the kids are going to bake a cake in the solar oven. It’s turned out to be rather useful. How’s your new job going?”
    “Good, really good. The tech teaching is only two days a week but it’s great, lots of practical sustainability stuff just like I wanted. And the rest of the time I’m at an architect’s office doing structural stuff again, and a bit of green building design.”
    “I’m glad.”
    “Hey, umm, is Steve going to be there? I don’t want to make things awkward.”
    “Oh no. Don’t worry about that. How about we talk more tonight, when the kids are in bed?”
    “Oh. Ok, that would be good.”
    “Hang on.” she said. “What?”
    The phone went silent for a few moments.
    Sue’s voice returned. “Danny says to tell you he’s going to make a solar space rocket next.”
    Brian laughed. “Ha! Tell him he’s dreaming.”


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