2016 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition Runner Up

Moving Pattern - by Nicholas Buck



Kim’s teenage self knew what she would become. Visually, like Kristin Scott-Thomas, with a blue Lotus and a wardrobe crammed with Karen Walker. She would top her creative writing class at Oberlin, then start an agency in Malibu. She would grow up in Wellington, do her undergrad in DC but never take a job in the public sector, let alone in (blergh) policy. There would be no children or husband but a long term partner with plenty of American teeth and hair and a last name for a first name like ‘Blaine’ or ‘Blake’; a Bradley Cooper doppelgänger who runs operations at, let’s say, Oxfam North America.
Kim: This Will Be Your Life. When asked, she’ll say she feels lucky, that good parents and genes (whiteness) and privilege handed her life on a plate. This pretending that she didn’t make her own luck will be her only conceit.        
As with literally every other part of her teen worldview, Kim was wrong about her future, which ruined her plan (20 years in the making) for her return to Wellington: the compliant prodigal coming back for Kelburn School’s centenary celebration. A day on school grounds, jaundiced photo albums (rayon, tie dye, bowl cuts, side pony, Reebok Pumps), the cute, positive badness of the school orchestra, the buildings in miniature and clanging against her pre-teen memories of massiveness. She even imagined the moment she would correct herself with the good news that the school grounds were, obviously, the same size as 1994: tangible proof she and her worldview had enlarged.
In her dream centenary, that evening would bring room temperature drinks and teacher peck-on-cheeking in the school hall. There are classmates but no social anxiety because Kim would have met or exceeded the promise of her early adolescence. There would be no one to whom her 1994 persona was accountable, no one to judge her. No judgment, at a reunion: the dreamiest of dreams.
And then the dream’s climax: leaving. Dusky twilight, walking down Upland Road and toward Alex Delaney’s, the afterparty holder. Alex, like Kim, would have fulfilled his destiny. He would have made money in merchant banking before buying in Wellington to remotely manage the business he started in Zurich. It had to be Switzerland because Kim did not anticipate the internet and redundancy of place in global eCommerce. Alex could’ve done what he did from Kawakawa, but who cares - Zürich is a romantic backdrop for a dream. Alex’s wife is a teutonically blond architect. She has strong cheek and collarbones, a woman built with a setsquare, a Nazi visage that belongs on a recruitment poster for Hitler Youth. Like everything else in the dream, Alex’s wife is someone’s idea of perfect.
The sense of time passing stops when Kim walks into Alex’s house. Old friends are there and, despite twenty years, immediately recognisable. Everyone is visibly older but only in life-affirming ways: no balding or crow’s feet or fatness or bad clothes - immaculate aging in the manner of Sigourney Weaver or Temuera Morrison. Everyone’s drinking is an ironic 90s throwback - the men have Double Brown, the women $20-a-slab RTDs. Smash Mouth is playing loudly, as it did, always, in 1994. No one speaks but everyone knows that everyone else has become A Success. There are no exceptions: in her dream, they have all arrived at the resting place of their earliest aspirations.                
Kim loved creative writing at school, at Kelburn School. It was the subject with the fewest rules, the main one being to not end with the finisher: ‘she woke up and it was all a dream’. She took this seriously, crafting elaborate and wakeful twists into the final paragraphs of her 200-word essays.   
But as she got older the need to articulate her dream demanded an outlet, so she committed her mental life to the idea that she would one day do enough to feel like she belonged. Kim became an objectively successful adult (career, health, money, lover, loved) who felt always that she was falling short, fucking up, drowning close to shore.
Which is why her actual return to Wellington felt like a wretched capitulation. She cried hot, nostalgic tears as the Civic (worth the price of a Lotus’ cupholders) turned down and out of Ngauranga Gorge and into the toy-town panorama of harbour, Mt Vic, Thorndon. She loved this town so much it made her sick, but this was not the plan.       
She had been offered job relocation from Auckland and jumped at it on the pretence of wanting to create space between her and Jeff. The truth was that he’d been all but erased from memory the moment he took his blender from the kitchen and the Van Halen poster off her living room wall. He’d driven off into the sunset, swiping right, probably, before he’d changed out of first. To Kim, Jeff was a failed project, evocative of nothing, now as he’d always been.   
Kim’s parents had a granny flat attached to their Brooklyn quarter acre ex-State house. For now, it was hers, the fit-out untouched since 1975, the centrepiece of the studio being a pistachio two-seater covered in tessalating, faded hyacinth velour. The rooms looked like she felt: staid, withered, belonging to another era. Overall, it seemed like the speculative fit-out of a psychopath trying to think and decorate like a Normal Person. She dubbed the flat the Murder Box.  
On this day, Saturday, she sat on the hyacinths, in the Box, drinking Red Ribbon Roast, looking across Aro Valley, riveted by her view of Boyd Wilson Park. In 2002 that field was a swamp that offered nothing but looming subsidence to drag the neighbouring university off the side of the hill. Now it was neat, astroturfed, floodlit, manicured. Fit teens and twenty-somethings played there with ludicrous intensity - energy that required formal organisation to burn off. An excess of energy: unthinkable.
On this day, Kim carries her mug outside, down Ohiro Road and onto Aro Street. The Valley is overcast but energised, crackling with the pent up mid-life crises of public servants loosed on their macchiatos and mountain bikes. The air is warm. There is a brewery in place of the Shell Station. Odd.  She climbs Devon Street, that zig-zagging goattrack prick with a personality that wants to kill you. She crests and is down the other side, through the Uni Quad and down onto Boyd Wilson. It’s too early for the sports-uniformed hardouts, but there are people on the field. She sits, watches.
A dollar bag of kooks and weirdoes. Varying ages. Ill-fitting trackies, men (8), woman (1), short and tall, white and brown, office-worker arms, laughing, respiring, hollering middle-age-spreaders in waiting, running unathletically in defence/attack on (hard to say) an electric lavender Nerf ball. Touch, perhaps, or gridiron, or their own brand of balls-driven mayhem. Their most striking feature is this: they are emphatically not this park’s target market, their presence and joy a happy, incidental contempt.
‘Care to join?’
‘What, me? No. Thank you, no. I - ’
‘Go on. You’re already in uniform, so...’

Kim looked at the others on the field then down at her hoodie, her Betty Boop pyjama twinset and knew he was right. The man addressing her was perfectly nondescript, a human gray tie, 180 cms, 45, tired eyes, shapeless brown hair, crows feet that extended down to his jaw, round features, sweaty in context.

         ‘I suppose.’ She laughed nervously. ‘It’s been a while since I’ve done, well, anything.’ This was closer to the literal truth than she wanted him to know. ‘...I mean, anything exercise-wise.’
         He smiled. ‘Don’t let that hold you back - we’re all useless.’
        ‘Yes. I mean, ah, that it’s nice that you’re out here.’
         ‘It keeps us off the crack. C’mon.’
He stood with his back turned halfway back toward the field, waiting and knowing she would comply.
Kim complied. At first just standing, watching as the Nerf buzzed and flipped out of reach. Without knowing how it ought it to be thrown, she knew their rotating pie-lobs did not fully exploit the Nerf’s physics.
Then the Nerf dribbled near her feet. She scooped it up, the other woman semaphored at her to throw, which she did. Beginner’s luck occurred: the ball rotated neatly on its horizontal axis, moving in a tight, flat arc into the woman’s mitt. There was a celebration, a point scored. Kim felt immortal in that moment, then ashamed because shame is hers and womankind’s most abundant emotional commodity and surely, surely it’s forbidden to feel joy that basic and unedited.
But she made it a habit.
On Saturdays Kim walked down and up the Valley at 8:30 with cold, thawing limbs for 40 minutes of Nerflex before the kids took over the park. She learned the kooks’ names and the games’ rules - a hybrid of seemingly every ball sport invented. Afterward they went back to the Quad to drink $2 vending machine coffee and talk about their jobs in the spirit of employerly disinterest.  They did not work together, they were not related but they cohered. To Kim, their easy friendship felt strong and tribal and very un-Western. She did not ask what caused it in case she broke the spell.
On her ninth week, she woke to horizontal rain sleeting at her thin bedroom windows. She walked anyway, arriving to the same group who had greeted her for the last two months. She played Nerflex, as per, running asymmetrical zig zags across Boyd Wilson, aiming that tatty missile toward the In-Zone whenever she could. Time was called. The real, lo-fat sportpeople started to show up. She rested, hands on knees, breathless but luxuriating in her covering of rainy sweat cocktail. Kim was comprehensively clean, as if mere exercise and wetness had the power to scrub pessimism from her sense of self.
         ‘You might like to know, Kim,’ said Gray Tie as they walked toward the Quad, ‘that you’re the first addition to Nerflex Club since 2014.’
She smiled and made a gently mocking fist pump gesture. ‘Well, that really is an honour. You do all seem, well, tight knit.’
         ‘We are. We needed to be insular, for a time, for our rehabilitation. But I remembered you from school and knew you’d fit in fine.’
         ‘We know each other?’
         ‘My last name is Cullinan. Tim Cullinan. From Kelburn School. I’m younger than you but my sister was in your year.’
Kim remembered Moana Cullinan well. Like her brother, she was noteworthy for being non-descript: average looker, middling student, a predestined wallflower.    
          ‘I remember. She was a nice person.’ They continued walking. ‘I’m sorry, but did you say you were younger -’
          ‘- Yes. I know: I look old. I feel old, as in decrepit and exhausted. This really is my, our rehab, because gyms are shit and walking is too quittable, but you’ve got to keep moving. I’ve had….’ He paused, stopping to look into the middle distance. ‘...It’s been a hard ten years, Kim.’
         ‘Oh. I’m sure.’ She wanted to punch herself in the face for sounding so trite. They continued to walk the gentle slope toward the quad, trailing the others.
         ‘Tim, will you go to the Centenary next week? Are you curious to see how you turned out? I mean - ’
          ‘I know exactly what you meant. “Turning out” is a relative term, isn’t it.’
         ‘Yes,’ said Kim. ‘I suppose so.’
          ‘I need to see everyone and calibrate my life accordingly.’ He laughed. ‘Thank you for helping me make up my mind - I’m there. Are you going?’  
         ‘Maybe. I’d given it some thought.’ This enormity of the understatement managed, of course, to pass Tim by. They kept walking.
         ‘I’ll give it some more thought.’ said Kim.
         ‘Cool,’ said Tim. ‘It might be good.’
         ‘Yeah. It might be good.’


Nicholas-Buck 400Nicholas Buck has been writing recreationally since 2007, blogging for several years about current events and the enjoyable culture shock of living off Ponsonby Road. Since 2013 his focus turned to fiction. He has written a number of short stories, as well as a self-published novella, Disappear Here. Nicholas currently resides in Wellington.


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