The Lightbulb Summer
The dining hall has been decked out and
dressed to kill for the reunion, which isn't a surprise, given that Raewyn
Evans-that-was has organised the event. She was always one of those
super-organised people bubbling over with ideas and enthusiasm, and from the few words we exchanged when I came in, that hasn't changed even if she's gained a
kilo for each of the twenty years since I last saw her. That sounds snide, but
it isn't - she seems as comfortable and happy in her body and her life as she
ever was, which means she looks good, bigger or not. She used to set my back up
at school, but I suspect I'd like her now, if I took the time to get to know her
I probably won't do that, though. To be honest, I'm not at
all sure why I'm here at all. There were only two people that mattered anything
much to me at high-school, and one of them, my closest friend Lucy, is in
London. She stayed, after the big OE, with an uptight English accountant I
couldn't stand but she swore was her soul-mate. The marriage lasted three years,
but I think it was always the city she was really in love with, and she hasn't
been able to bring herself to leave it yet. She'd laugh like a drain if she
could see me tonight, nodding and smiling at faces I don't recognise, attached
to names I barely remember, like some robotic president from Disneyland.
I guess that really I came simply because Lars wanted to.
“Go on,” he said, when I got the invitation,
“go. You can give me a glimpse into where you come from. Anyway, it'll be
Everything is fun, to Lars. He has a capacity for delight
that amazes and enchants me. He can take pleasure in everything from a symphony
to a well-cooked meat pie, and communicate his joy to the people around him.
Perhaps that's why our relationship has lasted - he laughs at the things that
scared other men away, and he helps me laugh at things that would have hurt or
scared me in the days before he elbowed his way into my life and took up
So, here we are. A woman with a badge that proclaims her
to be Robyn McRae-Arapere bears down on me with a wide grin.
“Nicky! Lovely to see you again, how are you? You're
looking fantastic! You've hardly changed at all. And you remember Peter
Arapere? We got married a couple of years out of school.”
I do actually remember Robyn - vaguely, at least. She
played Goal Attack in the netball team, although I don't have any recollection
of the husband at all. I return her smile. “I'm well, thanks. I think I
remember hearing that you two had got yourself hitched.” I didn't hear
anything of the kind - my mother is my hometown contact, and she knows how local
gossip bores me, so she never bothers to pass it on; but I want to be polite.
“Do you have kids?”
“Three - twins and a singleton.” She's looking
at Lars with open curiosity. “And this is...?”
“Oh, I'm sorry. This is Lars, my partner. Lars, Robyn
Lars beams at her, and thrusts out his hand, which she
takes and shakes, still smiling, but she quickly moves away to a group gathered
by the buffet, obviously bursting with the news that the gorgeous boy with Nicky
Grant isn't the son, after all, but the lover. Even from the other side of the
room, I can hear the conversation get shriller, and see the eyebrows rocketing
skyward. Lars grabs my hand and squeezes it, raising his own eyebrows in
imitation, and forcing a sharp laugh out of me.
Then I turn, and walk smack-bang into HIM. The second
person who meant something to me, back in the days. The first man to ever break
“Hello Jarrad.” The words don't sound as
strangled as they feel.
He's thickened, like so many of the others, but it's a
hard, in-shape thickness. His hairline has receded a ways, and his face is
weather-aged. He looks like what he is, a relatively prosperous dairy farmer.
He clears his throat. “Hi Nicky.”
His voice hasn't changed at all, and I'm catapulted back
to that summer, in an instant.
We're parked in the old Kingswood overlooking the swimming
hole on his father's property. We've been coming here in the summer for as long
as I can remember, first dragged by one or other of our mothers, later on bikes,
and since Jarrad got his license, in which ever car or ute he could get his Dad
to lend us. Being the only kids our age within miles, it was more or less
accepted by everyone, including us, that we would spend the summers together,
A couple of years back, maybe even last year, I wouldn't
have been sitting in a car, not with the sun beating down like this. I'd've
peeled down to my togs, and hurled myself toward the water, heedless of the
swarms of sandflies waiting to snack on my shins, or the sharpness of stones
under my feet, and I'd barely have come out until it was time to leave, except
for long enough to eat whatever lunch Mum had packed us.
This year is different though. Summer vacations have
always seemed to stretch endlessly into the future before, but this year I can
count every day between now and the end, because I have an instinctive feeling
that they are the final days of my long childhood. When they're over, I'll leave
here, and I can think of only one thing could draw me back once I've gone, and
that thing is sitting in the driver's seat beside me, gazing out of the window.
I curse myself for a fool. Jarrad Hughes isn't interested
in me, not like that, and I know it. The star winger in the regional under-21s,
he probably runs through the dreams of at least half the girls in the area. The
only reason he's here with me is because it's how he's always spent his summers,
a habit he hasn't got around to breaking.
“So,” he says, “It's Vic. for you, come
“You're doing Art, eh?”
“Art and Art History, yeah. You'll be off to Massey,
“Dunno if it's worth it - might just start straight
in helping Dad.” He kneels on the seat and reaches into the back. “You
want one of these?”
He's holding out a can of Tui, still dewed with moisture
from the fridge. I nod, and take it, putting my mouth close to the tab so that
when I peel back the ring beer won't go everywhere, even after our jolting drive
He takes a deep pull of the beer, his eyes trained on
something out there in the middle distance. “I mean,” he goes on,
“sooner or later, I'll be taking over the farm. Dad's gotta pay someone, so
it might as well be me, and I can learn all I need to off him. He knows dairying
as well as anyone.”
“Course,” he grins, “if I had your Mum, I
might do the same as you. She's a nice lady, and a beaut cook, but I wouldn't
want to live with her.”
I laugh. My mother's one of those clucky women, and since
Dad walked out on us when I was a kid of seven she's not only been fiercely
protective of her only chick - me - but she's always treated Jarrad as an
extension of her brood. She couldn't be more different than Jarrad's own mother,
a cheerfully distracted woman who prefers horses to people.
“Yeah, well...” I shrug.
The conversation dies again, evaporated by the glare of
the sun, crushed by the heavy stillness of the air. He's still staring out of
the window, his pale eyes half-closed. I take the opportunity this gives me to
gaze at him. The blonde hair that fringes his eyes and curls into his collar is
too light to be called gold - it's more like pine - but you could use the
gold-word for his skin, which is taking on a deeper tan every day. Beads of
sweat are beginning to form over his upper lip and on his temples inside our
greenhouse on wheels.
God, it's hot.
I take a mouthful of beer, to moisten my lips. I don't
want to lick them because I do want to lick them, if you see what I mean.
The gesture is obvious, crass, too revealing. This is my friend, and I'm as
disturbed as I am excited by the way desire for him grips and twists at my guts.
It's okay to feel intense like that about John Travolta, or Clint Eastwood,
someone safely distant, but lust isn't supposed to muscle in and screw up my
friendships. A sweat droplet rolls down his neck under his singlet and my eyes
follow it, like a hypnotist's watch. One curl plasters itself to his forehead,
and I struggle with the impulse to brush it back from his face.
“I wouldn't push you away.”
His tone is amused as he drops the words like stones into
the river, so they ripple over my over-sensitised awareness.
“You've been looking at me like I'm the last slice of
cake on the plate for weeks. I might not be top of the class, like you, but I'm
not stupid either.”
“I know you're not.” My voice is barely more than a whisper.
He lifts a shoulder in a half-shrug that makes his muscles
move in all kinds of interesting ways. “So,” he says, “I'm just
saying, I wouldn't push you away, or run screaming, or anything, if you did what
you want to.”
He's still not looking at me, so I can't read anything in
his eyes. The swishing thump of my pulse fills my ears, and I want to ask him if
he's saying he feels the same way I do, but I know - if I'm prepared to accept
it - that he's not. He's not so much giving me a gift as offering the loan of
something he doesn't need and isn't using.
Pride and sense should hold me back, but... I lean
forward, to press closed lips to his. He turns slightly, so that I catch the
corner of his mouth and part of his cheek, feeling the prickle of the bristles
that are all but invisible against the tan. The flesh shifts under my kiss, as
his mouth quirks up into a small smile. Next, I kiss his neck, flickering out my
tongue to catch a salty sweat bead. He barely breathes.
He makes no sound or movement to encourage or repulse
anything I do, until much later, when he tangles a hand in my hair, and gives a
quiet sigh that sounds like surrender.
Afterwards, we swim for a while, drink more beer, eat the
lunch my mother packed, just like any other summer's day. We don't speak about
what's happened until we are driving home, and he pulls the car over, a couple
of hundred yards from my home.
He turns around in the seat, and it's the first time he's
looked at me properly all day. His eyes are feverish, full of cold fire.
“I'm not gay, Nicky,” he says. “You do
understand that, right?”
I nod. “I know.”
“You tell anyone about this, ever, and I'll kill
He puts the car back into gear, and drives me to the gate.
“So, I'll see you tomorrow, eh?”
I should say no, of course, but I'm as deeply in love as
any moth ever was with a lightbulb, and just as ready to immolate myself.
I turn to look at him as I get out of the Holden, but he's
already fixed his eyes down the road.
“Oh, for goodness sake, Jarrad!” A female voice
breaks in, pulling me back into the present. She's trim and pretty, easily the
most attractive of the women here. “I can't believe you never told me you
were at school with Nicky Grant!” The smile she turns on me is warm and
genuine, as he scrambles for an introduction:
“My wife, Janine.”
“I'm a huge fan of yours,” she says, surprising
me -- modern art has never been a topic of any great interest in my home town.
“I saw your last exhibition at the Fernhill in Wellington, it was
Lars takes my hand again, as I thank her. This time, he
keeps a tight hold. Jarrad, in his turn, moves closer to Janine, and puts his
arm around her waist. Our gazes meet, just briefly, and there's no threat in his
glance, just a silent plea.
The memory doesn't hurt anymore, not here-and-now, not
with Lars like a crutch at my side.
“You look well, Jarrad,” I say. “I'm glad
life's treating you well, and it's lovely to meet you Janine.” I pull a
card out of my wallet. “Write to me, and I'll make sure you get tickets for
the next opening, if you'd like them.” I can almost see the word
“relief” write itself across Jarrad's face.
Her smile widens. She is quite lovely. “That would be
wonderful. Thank you.”
We drift apart on the people-current. I turn to Lars.
"Let's head back into the city,” I say.
“Of course.” We move toward the exit, and he
cocks his head to one side, “Why don't we go to the Irish bar - we can walk
there from the motel.”
“I don't know...” I begin.
“Oh go on, love,” he cuts in, “it'll be fun.”
I laugh, and agree. We sail out, leaving the past tossing
behind us in our wake.