Rising to the Surface
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* A businessman meets a tattoo artist on a plane and finds his world beginning to unravel.
*A rock star lookalike postie steals a postcard and has a change of luck.
* An eccentric boy with an interest in Winston Churchill’s parrot receives a diagnosis – but will his mother accept it?
* A lonely woman befriends the boy next door, who shares his love of pyrotechnic experiments and letters from Africa from his missionary mother.
These are some of the characters that form the cast of this dazzling début collection of stories by Latika Vasil. Her portraits of disengaged and often idiosyncratic individuals, out of step with their worlds, are sketched with insight, compassion and humour.
From: Rising to the Surface, by Latika Vasil
Most afternoons at around 3.30 River would appear on my doorstep. Sometimes I would pre-empt him. I would be sitting on the steps outside the front door, smoking a cigarette, waiting.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” he would say, in a not-too-disapproving tone. “You might get lung cancer and die.” He was only stating a fact. I could take it or leave it.
“You’re right, River,” I would say and stub out the cigarette in the potted San Pedro cactus.
He didn’t like his name. He said it embarrassed him. I could see that. It was not, I imagined, a name that would go down well among his peer group of twelve-year-old boys. It was also the name of an actor who had died at a tragically young age of a drug overdose but I didn’t suppose he would know that. I wondered who had named him. He lived with his grandparents, my three-doors-down neighbours. They were called Roger and Janice Tweedie and didn’t appear to be the type of people who would approve of the name River. River was the son of their only daughter, Ruth. They hardly ever spoke of Ruth, and River was cagey too. I didn’t want to push the subject with him in case it was painful. I figured he would tell me about his mother in his own time.
Besides, I had my own worries. There was no need to sift through the rubble of other people’s misery. The past months had been a drip-feed of malaise — problems at work, dwindling finances, a chest infection that lasted months, and finally Pepper getting sick and being put down by the vet. After that, the white flag was up. I couldn’t walk the distance to the letterbox to collect my mail, couldn’t answer the phone, couldn’t face the newspaper with its slash-and-burn headlines. I was beginning to emerge, willing to dip my feet in the waters of normal living, when River started coming over. By then I could greet the day, perhaps not quite with a smile, but at least I didn’t feel like I was falling into a pit when I woke up in the morning.
The first time River came over he asked me if I wanted to see an experiment. I asked him what type of experiment. He explained that he was a home chemist, and made it sound like a proper job title that he would put on his CV. I imagined him in a crisp white lab coat padding around the Tweedies’ basement that they had possibly converted into a laboratory — with an elaborate set-up of Bunsen burners, interconnected glass flasks and tubes filled with frothing blue, red and orange liquids, and gases rising towards the ceiling in snaky tendrils. He had just bought some magnesium ribbon, he said, and asked whether I would like to see it burn.
“It’s quite amazing,” he said.
I had a few reservations. I wasn’t sure how safe it was — he was only twelve — and I didn’t want to fall out with the Tweedies, as they were nicer than my next-door neighbours and sometimes collected my mail if I was away. But he seemed so calm and self-assured I ended up agreeing to the experiment. We decided to do it in the garage. The floor was concrete and non-flammable. I didn’t own a car so the space was vacant — a laboratory for the asking. He pulled out his equipment from a small backpack: a blowtorch, a pair of thin scissor-like tongs and a small strip of metal — the magnesium, no doubt. He seemed totally comfortable with the procedure, as if he had done it many times. He was wearing safety glasses as he worked at heating the magnesium ribbon over the jet-like flame of the torch. Suddenly there was a flash of blinding white light. I closed my eyes and saw the residual imprint of the flash against my eyelids. When I opened them again, River was looking at me wide-eyed.
“Wasn’t that the most beautiful light you’ve ever seen?” he asked.
It was the most animated I had heard him. He usually spoke in a soft monotone. I nodded, although I wasn’t entirely sure that I had any point of comparison, never having paid much attention to different types of light. River looked happy.
We went inside and I made him something to eat. He asked for a baloney sandwich. I said I didn’t know what baloney was and that he must have watched too many American TV sitcoms. I made him a ham sandwich instead. He sat at my kitchen table, quietly eating and sipping his orange juice. I asked him about his friends at school and whether they were interested in home chemistry too. I said that I was sure the magnesium ribbon experiment would go down a treat. His expression folded in on itself like a sealed envelope. Eventually he said that the boys at his school were dickheads and they weren’t interested in anything. He told me that he thought I was special and he wouldn’t share his experiments with just anyone.
After that, River came over regularly. We sometimes went into the garage and he would show me more home chemistry, like how to make a purple flame with potassium chlorate and sugar. If there was a respite from the winter cold and rain he would let off coloured smoke bombs and home-made fireworks in the back garden. I was a little scared of all the bangs and fiery explosions but he seemed to be in control and always wore gloves, safety glasses and a mask. Sometimes we would just hang out in the kitchen. I made us honey sandwiches or cheese on toast, and cups of hot Milo. Several weeks after I first met him he talked to me about his mother, Ruth. The Tweedies had told him that she was living in Africa, helping orphans discover God. River said he hardly remembered her now and that she no longer felt like a person he had known in real life, but more like a movie character that he half knew, in the way he knew Indiana Jones or Harry Potter.
I tried to picture Ruth Tweedie in a dusty African village clutching her Bible and telling herself it was her calling, God’s will, and that River would understand. He received regular letters from Ruth, full of descriptions of the village and the poor little orphans and promises that one day she would come back for River and they would travel to Africa together so he could see everything for himself. The letters were always handwritten, in small tidy script on lined white notepaper. The Tweedies never gave him the envelopes, although he longed to see the African stamps, which he imagined would be boldly coloured and have pictures of Zulu tribesmen and African women with ringed and elongated necks like giraffes.
It was one of those cloudless blue-sky days in midwinter that were a rare treat like an unexpected parcel in the mailbox. I walked down the hill to the bus stop and caught a bus into town. It was well past the morning commute and there were no nine-to-fivers among the handful of passengers — no one carrying a briefcase of papers and a sandwich in a Ziploc bag that they would eat at their desk during lunch; no one checking their Outlook calendar on their smartphone quietly cursing the back-to-back meetings. Everyone had a window seat and ample time to stare out the window and think about how they were going to stretch out their few errands to fill the long wasteland of the day.
I had no errands. I wasn’t even sure where I would get off the bus. I decided I would play a childhood game. My best friend Katie and I would choose a passenger and then get off wherever that person got off. Often we would follow the person for a while, pretending to be private investigators and making up outlandish stories about who they might be and what they were doing. I chose a woman in a strange hat. I had noticed her when I got on the bus and wondered where she might be going in a hat like that. It was more of a fascinator than a hat — a confection of feathers flying off her head at various directions. The bus passed through the CBD and headed towards the eastern suburbs. She finally got off the bus and I followed. She crossed the road and entered the hospital. I wondered who she was visiting and whether the visit was happy or sad — a life beginning or a life in decline. I decided that the hat was too festive for a sad visit, but I would never know for sure.
I stopped to get my bearings and spotted a pet shop. It was the shop where I had found Pepper. I decided to take a look. The shop was unusually dark, and coming in from the bright sunny day it took my eyes a few moments to adjust. My other senses were immediately assaulted by a strange mix of sensations — birds cawing, puppies barking and cats mewling, and that peculiar musky pet-shop smell. A young sales assistant was suddenly at my elbow and steered me over to a wooden box as if I was a blind person.
“Let me guess — you’re looking for a kitten? We just got the most beautiful grey tabby yesterday.”
She picked the kitten out of the box and placed it in my hands. It was compact and light — just a little ball of fluff at this stage — but I could feel the strength tight within its body just waiting to unfurl. I stroked its head and it started to nuzzle against my chest and purr. I had to have it.
I waited for River to come over. I was excited to show him the kitten. River had told me he had never had a pet — Mrs Tweedie was allergic — and that he had always wanted a cat. I thought boys preferred dogs to cats but then River was not your average boy. The kitten was still very timid and hiding under the sofa. The doorbell rang and I ran to the door.
“I’ve got a surprise. Take a look under the sofa.”
He pulled a slightly theatrical raised-eyebrow expression that reminded me of Dr Spock on Star Trek, and then a few seconds later he looked like a twelve-year-old boy again as he lay on the floor peering under the sofa.
“Here kitty, kitty,” he said trying to coax it out.
The kitten eventually emerged. I held it so River could stroke it.
“Help me pick a name. If you name him that means he’s your pet too,” I said.
River thought for a moment.
“How about Tesla — you know, after the scientist?”
“I like it. It’s unusual. Okay, Tesla it is.” I put the kitten on the floor and it scurried back under the sofa.
I didn’t see River for a while after that. It was an eventful time. For one thing my sick leave ran out and I was deemed well enough to go back to work. The kitten grew alarmingly. Tesla quickly turned into a sinewy young cat, sharpening his claws on the cabbage trees and maliciously eyeing the sparrows and tui that dared to stop in the garden. One day River reappeared. I had come home from work early and he was sitting on my doorstep waiting for me. He held an envelope in his hands. We sat at the table with our hot drinks. I held mine close to my face and the steam fogged my glasses so that River looked all distorted, like the blurred-out images of undercover people in TV interviews. He passed me the letter.
“It’s from my mother. Here, read it.”
I wiped my glasses and read Ruth Tweedie’s small tidy script. It wasn’t a long letter. There were no detailed passages describing the dusty African village or the cute antics of the poor orphan children; there were no inspirational quotes from the Bible. It was brief and matter of fact. Ruth was leaving Africa and moving to Auckland, where she had got a job in a small office supplies company. She had found a two-bedroom flat nearby that was close to a school and the shops. She would be picking River up in a few days time and he would be moving to Auckland with her. She’d ended the letter on an upbeat note. ‘I hope you are as excited as me.’ I looked at River’s inscrutable face and didn’t know what to say. The last thing he said to me was that he wished he could live here with me and Tesla.
Tesla sat on my lap. I scratched him behind his ears and he started to purr, the low droning the only sound in the room. It was night and everything was still. Still like a lake’s surface just before a stone is thrown in, sending out concentric ripples that stretch further and further out. I thought about what River had said about living with me and Tesla. A part of me entertained the fantasy. I had been lonely for a long time and so had River. He wasn’t especially close to his grandparents, his mother was virtually a stranger, and there had never been any mention of a father. I noticed River’s letter on the coffee table. He had left it behind. I stretched to pick it up. Tesla grumbled and readjusted his position on my lap. It was unusual that the letter was in its envelope. I wondered which country in Africa Ruth was living in, but the stamps were not African. They were KiwiStamps. The oatmeal-coloured envelope looked like official, institutional stationery, although it had no sender’s details. I wondered what it could all mean. My mind was shuffling possibilities but everything seemed implausible.
I woke up early, for a Saturday. Tesla was already up, circling the bed and meowing for attention. I fed him and then let him outside. I stepped out too and breathed in the crisp air. I felt tired. I hadn’t slept well for a couple of days. I thought the fresh air and weak morning sun might infuse me with some energy like some miracle potion. I sat at my usual spot, near the San Pedro cactus. Way down the hill, on the main road, a fire engine suddenly appeared, its angry sirens cutting through the morning stillness like a laser. I wondered if it was going to turn up towards my street but it screamed onwards. It reminded me of the time River and I had heard an ambulance go past the house and he had told me about the Doppler Effect. He knew so much. I noticed the letterbox was ajar and got up to take a look. There was a small package. I immediately knew who it was from. Inside was a pair of safety glasses, a butane blowtorch — the kind chefs use to make the hard sugar crust of crème brûlée — and a thin coil of grey magnesium.