You do little more than glance around the café. You know very well that you won't see anyone you know, because you don't really know anyone.
You came here when your marriage started to crumble, and the bitter recriminations drove you away from home. Your ex stayed in Wellington with the house and the kids. You send money every month, several hundred dollars more than the court demanded. You send the children gifts. It makes you feel like you are still playing an integral part in their life, rather than a holiday cameo.
The business was split, and you took over the Christchurch half. It seemed to both of you that the personal part of the divorce was going to be cruel enough, without letting the business part turn into another battlefield. The staff here seem quite glad to have management on site, rather than visiting every so often, and you get along with them, but it's not like having friends.
You are forty. You can't call yourself 'young' any longer, however much you might want to. Here it is. Middle-age. Mid-life. A crisis all on its own. You might look in the mirror, and see a face that could pass for thirty-five looking back. Your hair might not show the grey that is gradually invading - yet. It doesn't matter. You know it's there. Of course, it is just one more day, you are only twenty-four hours older than you were yesterday, and there was no grim, foreboding portal for you to pass through when you woke up this morning, but however often you tell yourself that it doesn't change the fact that you are forty. Forty.
In a fit of whimsy, you bought yourself a piece of cake, to eat with your coffee, but as you look at it now, you want to vomit. You push it away in disgust, open up your evening paper.
"Excuse me," a hesitant voice comes from behind your left shoulder, "aren't you going to eat that?"
You turn to look at the speaker. She is a tall girl, very young, maybe seventeen or eighteen, with long dark hair, and amazingly white skin. You noticed her when you came in, and almost looked around for a photo-crew, because she has that half-starved, cheekboney look, like a model. Then you saw that she was wearing grubby black cargoes and T-shirt, and decided she was "just some kid" after all. You find yourself looking into her eyes, which are huge and as dark as her hair.
"No. I changed my mind."
She swallows, drops her eyes, then looks back at you.
"Can I have it? Please?"
You see a thin windproof jacket over the back of her chair, and a small pack with a sleeping-bag tied to it sits by her feet. On the table in front of her there is just an empty cup, and you are dimly aware that she has already been up to refill it at least twice.
Conclusions start forming in your mind.
"Sure," you reply. You are about to hand the cake to her, when she gets up, and comes to sit at your table, kicking her pack across the floor. She brings her cup, and looks longingly towards the coffee-pot that sands on the table beside the till.
"I wonder... um... would you... they might not notice if you refilled this." She pushes the cup towards you with a tentative smile.
First comes a flush of irritation. She's already got your food, she's invaded your table, and now she expects you to run around getting her coffee. But the feeling ebbs away. After all, why not? It isn't as if you were doing anything better.
You go, fill the cup to the brim, and bring it back, with handful of sugar sachets.
"I assumed you took milk, I wasn't sure about sugar," you explain.
She just says "Thank you," and smiles again.
You watch her eat. She is fast, but fastidious. She drops no crumbs, smears no chocolate. When she has finished, she licks all traces of the food from her fingertips, curling her tongue like a kitten.
"Thank you," she says again.
There is an awkward silence, and you glance down at her pack. Her name is stencilled on it in small, neat letters. Ailbhe Corrigan.
"How do you pronounce that?" you ask, for something to say.
"Ahlva," she answers. "My parents are from Dublin." This is, you suppose, an explanation of the exotic name.
You nod. You ask her if she was born in Ireland, though her accent tells you that even if she was she's spent most of her life right here. She tells you no, that she was born here, and grew up in Blenheim, and you nod again.
You talk of inconsequentialities until finally you can't hold back the questions you want to ask.
"When did you last eat?"
She looks defensive. "Lunchtime."
"Yeah." She looks away from you.
"What did you have?"
She doesn't reply, or look at you.
"What business is it of yours? Who do you think you are? My keeper, or something?"
"Hardly. I'm just concerned, I don't like to see a kid hungry. Do you have somewhere to stay?"
A smile twists across the pale face.
"There are always places to stay, if you're not picky."
You don't like the way her voice sounds. There is a harshness to it that twists up your belly like that smile twists up her face.
"You can stay at my place tonight, if you like. I'll cook us a meal." You look her over. "You can have a bath, wash those clothes." She's not much older than your own kids. You hope someone would offer them as much in the same position.
You get the feeling that she had been about to refuse, until the last offer. She inclines her head, slowly, just once.
"Okay. What do I call you?" She asks.
"Most people call me Mick."
Some hours later, she is clean, and has changed into a dress that she pulled out of her pack, a soft black garment that seems to cling and flow all at once. You know enough about teen culture from your kids to call it gothic. She spent a good hour in the bath, and another half drying her hair, which billows out like a storm cloud around her white face. Afterwards she asked if she could wash the rest of her clothes, as well as those she had been wearing. You, of course, said, "yes" and were rewarded by a real, broad, genuine smile.
You are in the kitchen, preparing spaghetti. It may not be a glamorous meal, but you feel that the child needs filling up, more than she needs fine cuisine. You have opened the mail, and several cards lie on the table. She picks up the large arty one that your children sent - a sea scene, signed All our love, Rebecca and Jason.
"It's your birthday." She says.
She doesn't ask how old, you don't volunteer. She comes up beside you, and kisses you lightly on the cheek. "Happy birthday," she says.
You thank her, and serve the food, pouring out glasses of blood-red cabernet to go with it. As you both eat, you marvel again at the daintiness with which she consumes the messy meal. You comment on it, in a joking tone, and her eyes cloud over. "My stepfather hates mess," she tells you.
You don't know her well enough to pry into the significance of the comment, so you let it pass, and when she has finished the pasta, you serve ice-cream, smiling to see a childish look of complete joy on her face.
The phone rings. It is your ex., calling to wish you a happy birthday. It's a short call, without tension. Since the divorce, you have managed to recapture some of the friendship you had right back at the beginning when you first met. You speak of business, birthdays, and the children, who are away at camp, but will call this weekend. You close, coolly affectionate.
When you finish, you find that she has poured coffee, and you take it through to the lounge room, where you settle yourself in an armchair and she perches on the edge of the sofa. The only light comes from a standard lamp that stands behind her, throwing highlights and deep shadows over her form. You sit, unspeaking and look at her. The fingers that curl around the coffee cup are long and slim, the black-clad body almost childlike - but only almost. The thin material of her dress moulds itself to sparse curves, and you can't look away. Her face is hooded in darkness, and you aren't sure if she is looking at you, or into her cup. In the background, the dryer hums, in the foreground there is only silence.
Then she puts down her cup, and comes and sits on the floor between your legs. She takes the mug from your hands and places it on the table, then kneels up and kisses you on the mouth, slowly. You shake your head, and push her away.
She leans towards you. "Isn't this what you want?" she whispers, her lips so close to yours that her breath tickles them. Her hands go to the buttons of your shirt, and she starts to undo them. "Isn't this what everybody wants?" She leaves the "from me" unspoken, but it hangs in the air.
It isn't what you intended, when you invited her home. At least, you like to think it isn't, that you were motivated only by philanthropy. But she is right, it is what you want. You tangle your hands in that long dark hair, and crush her mouth with a kiss.
In the bedroom there is darkness. Neither of you turns on the light. She eases you out of your clothes, then sheds hers, quickly. She moves over you with the effortless unthinking perfection of the tide over the sand, her skin smoothly fluid against yours. You gasp, once or twice, cry out, but she is utterly silent. You move your hands to touch and caress, but she catches them and holds them above your head. The brushing of her hair against your chest tells you that she is shaking her head.
"Let me." It's a murmur, no more.
You catch hold of the metal bars of the bed head and cling on to them, as she uses her hands and mouth and body to pleasure you. You arch yearningly toward her, say her name under your breath, and feel her smile against your skin. Still she makes no sound. She leaves you exhausted, with tears rolling down your cheeks, but unsatisfied. You release your hold on the cold metal, raise yourself above her, and beg, "My turn... please?" As you lower your lips to her skin, she doesn't stop you, and soon you couldn't be stopped, even if she tried.
You do, at last, surprise a sound out of her, and she shakes slightly as she curls herself against your body. You wrap her first in your arms, and then pull a quilt over both. Soon, you both sleep.
When you wake, it is light. She has moved away from you, and the quilt has slid off of her. Her face, in sleep is impossibly young and peaceful. Not beautiful, precisely, but a strikingly attractive combination of angles and curves. You would like to kiss it, but you are reluctant to wake her, so you sit to look down at her, smiling at the languorous feel of your limbs.
The smile falls away as you see what was hidden last night. She lies, face down, and along her spine there is a procession of round, even purple marks, and these are crossed with the raised stripes of old weals. In the small of her back, the cigarette burns form a pattern - grotesquely, a heart shape. You strangle a cry, and reach out to touch them.
She pulls the quilt up, gathering it around herself like armour.
"Who?" You ask.
She shrugs. "My stepfather. When I wouldn't be a good girl.. Mostly I was good, in the end. At least, until I could get out."
You try to hold her. She pulls away.
"He raped you?" You don't know why you are asking, when the answer is obvious, but you ask anyway.
Again that shrug. "If I said no, he burned me or hit me. He only ever fucked me when I let him. Is that rape? He'd say not."
You have no words. No comfort to offer, no platitudes. You wonder if she was being a "good girl" last night, but you can't ask. You don't want her to have felt fear, even for a moment. She sees the question in your eyes.
"You were kind to me," she says. "You gave me what I needed. I did the same for you in return. That's all."
She gets out of bed, and gathers up her dress and underthings, then walks naked to the laundry. You pull on a robe and follow. She pulls her clothes out of the drier, dressing again in black shorts and shirt. The dress and the rest of the clothes are folded neatly and stowed back into her pack.
"May I have some breakfast before I go?" She asks.
You stutter out an "Of course."
As she sits to eat, you pour her coffee and orange juice, placing cereal on the table and filling the toaster.
"You don't have to go." You say. "You could stay here. There's a spare room, and you'd be safe..."
She shakes her head. "It wouldn't work, Mick. I can't belong to anyone but myself, not now."
"I wasn't asking you to belong to me," you protest.
"Not yet. But you would. You need a relationship, I just need a bed for the night, and I can find that anywhere, if I'm willing to pay for it, one way or another. Best I should go."
You nod, reluctantly. You reach into your coat, and pull out a couple of fifty dollar notes.
"That's all I've got in cash," you say.
"You don't have to..." she looks ashamed, for the first time.
"I know. Just let me give you the choice of payment methods, okay?"
You walk her to the door.
"Are you sure you won't stay?" you ask, "Just for a day or two?"
"I'm sure." She grins then, as she hitches the pack onto her back. "I wouldn't want to be around when you tried to explain to your kids why their mother was shacked up with a fifteen-year-old girl, anyway."
She kisses you, says "Happy birthday, Michaela," and is gone.
As the door bangs shut behind her, you don't know whether to laugh, or cry, so you do neither. Later, you will do both.