It must be just after ten, for down the lane and around the corner the Lady of the Lake has slipped her moorings and is, in her customary and curiously unladylike manner, smothering the town with the acrid effluvium of her morning’s exertions.
“Excuse me,” the girl asks.
He’d noticed her, sitting there reading, whilst deciding on a table. There had been other tables free, as most of the tourists were down at the quay watching the old Lady belch her way out from the Queenstown dock into the opalescent waters of the lake, but at first glance he’d thought her pretty, so he’d taken the table next to her.
“Sure,” he replies, turning to face her, “how can I help?”
“The Earnslaw. The TSS Earnslaw. I mean I know that SS stands for Steam Ship, but what does the T stand for? The?”
She has strawberry-blond hair, tied back, and a lean face which is frowning in query. Her straight nose extends in one uninterrupted slope down from her high forehead and her eyes are grey; grey like the morning light on cloud before the sun creeps over the horizon.
He doesn’t reckon her for the hardier variety of backpacker: not for her the all-weather jacket and pants and mud-encrusted boots. And yet she sports a light-blue hybrid jacket and cross-trainers, so maybe she is one of the new breed of designer backpackers he’s grown accustomed to seeing about the town. It is, after all, summer.
“Screw,” he replies. “The first S stands for Screw and the second for Steamship. The T stands for Twin; Twin-Screw Steamship, hence TSS.”
For a moment her frown deepens as she debates whether he is being either clever or vulgar, or both. But when she’s made up her mind that he is being straight with her, her face colours a little and she looks back down at her book.
“What that means is,” he explains, vaguely amused at her discomfort, “she has two propellers, one on either side.”
After a pause, she says, “Smelly old thing, isn’t she?”
The girl is British.
“Yes, she burns a lot of coal. Launched the same year as the Titanic sank.”
“Which was?” she asks, looking up, challenging him.
“So it was,” she replies, her slightly cocky, confident smile suggesting she’d been ready to correct him if he’d got the date wrong. She buries her head back in her book. “Where does she go? I mean, on the lake. Up or down?” she asks, without looking up.
He likes it that she doesn’t seem backward in coming forward with her questions. “Across,” he replies. “She crosses the lake to Walter Peak.”
“Worth the trip, is it? Walter Peak?” This time she does look up.
“Gardens will be at their best and you’ll definitely lower the average age at the lunch, but you’ll be a captive audience for nearly four hours and the lake can chop up a bit in the afternoon.”
“Mmm. Thanks, might duck that one then.” She pauses, studying him, not in any critical way, more in the sense that she is trying to place him.
When she’s reached some agreeable decision about him, she closes her book, sets it on the small round table and sits up.
“There’s just too much to do here,” she states, “I’m almost blinded by the choice. I haven’t the first clue as to how to decide what to see and what not to.”
“Depends what you want to get out of it, doesn’t it?”
“How d’you mean?” she asks, clearly confused.
Now it is his turn to make his mind up about her. Is she the kind who answers every question with a question; one of those who can’t see for looking? Or is she, could she be, one of that rare breed who actually want to get to know the locale rather than merely observe it?
“Well, if you want the thrill of the bungy, the Ledge up there,” he points up over his shoulder, “is one of the best places to do it, though some prefer the experience over water. You can tandem paraglide or mountain bike down from the top, too. There’s a luge up there as well, but that’s really only for kids - big kids, if you like. Then there’s jetboats up the Shotover, light plane or heli trips to Milford Sound or Lake Manapouri – where they filmed the Lord of the Rings, vineyard tours on the road to Wanaka or, as your nose has just informed you, Lady of the Lake cruises across Lake Wakatipu.”
He pauses and glances to see whether he still commands her attention.
“But if you hunger for a more spiritual experience,” he adds, “the view from Bob’s Peak is as good a place as any to start.”
He is right, she has glazed over.
“You’ve read about that, then?”
“Yes,” she replies, hauling herself from her daze and holding up a fistful of leaflets, “I have. And that’s what I mean. I’m spoilt for choice, but the choice doesn’t do it for me.”
He chuckles. “So reading a book in a café does?”
“At least this way I get a feel for the place.”
He chuckles again and is pleased. “The only feeling you’re going to get reading a tome like that is the one that tells you your bum has gone to sleep. By the way, what are you reading?” He leans over to look at the cover of her book.
It is his way when he meets women for the first time. He takes a curious delight in standing them up to see if they can take his raw South Island humour. If they don’t get up and walk away – or run in some cases – he figures they might be worth the investment of his time.
“San Miguel, TC Boyle.” She flashes the cover at him; the title and author’s name are set in ruby band across the middle of a picture of a dark-haired woman in a white dress, striding away through tussock grass. “A friend gave it to me in case I got bored with the airline movies on the way over,” she adds in a tone that leaves him in no doubt she is about to walk.
Of course, she walked. Possibly it was simply because she’d finished her coffee or possibly it was because she’d got somewhere else to be, something like that. And yet more probably it was because his line of approach was, for her, a shade too direct. Whichever it was it didn’t matter, the result was the same: she walked.
But, the cover of the book she’d been reading stuck with him. He is sure – as sure as anyone can be from a brief glance – that he’s seen the picture of the dark-haired woman striding away through tussock grass before.
Tuesday sees Fin back behind the counter of the i-SITE on the corner of Shotover and Camp.
“No wonder you were able to quote the visitors guide to me,” she says, playfully.
He hadn’t seen her come in; he’d been busy repelling a gaggle of Japanese tourists.
“So which of the many activities and adventures did you choose?” he asks, coolly.
He decides she looks even better than the first time he saw her. Her face looks more relaxed, less tight about her cheeks, and her smile seems even brighter, as though before it was constrained and now it is given over to the full range of its lively expression.
“Strangely enough, only one.”
“I spent the weekend in Wanaka,” she replies, grinning, but she holds his eye contact, goading him to quiz her a little further.
He doesn’t mind her game. Like the colour of her cheeks the first time they met, her mischievous smile draws him to her. “And you stayed where?”
“At the Wanaka Bakpaka.”
“Oh, I wasn’t there much.”
“Finish that book?”
“Not yet. Been busy,” she replies, and smiles another one of her broad, mischievous smiles.
“So, what did you get up to that kept you from your book?”
“’Bit nosey aren’t you?”
He notes for the second time her propensity for answering one question with another. “It’s my job to ask. That way we get to know which activities you day-trippers like most.”
This time she snorts with amusement.
But Fin chooses to ignore her scepticism, deciding instead to leave her to run with the ball.
“Okay,” she yields. “What did I get up to?” She puts her finger to her lip and glances at the ceiling in mock contemplation. “Let me see: a little swimming, a little bicycling, and a little running, quickly followed by a lo-o-ot of sleeping.”
He winces: “Challenge Wanaka?”
“Right first time! Give the monkey a banana.” She raises her arms in triumph: “Challenge Anneka.”
“Don’t be,” she encourages, “it’s an old and completely ridiculous television programme I’m only just old enough to remember.” She stands back and smiles at him, waiting to see if he can take her jibe about him being a monkey.
“I’m Fin,” he says, holding out his hand, “short for Finlay.”
“I’m Amy,” she replies, “not quite so short in heels.”
His day off just happens to be Wednesday, the next day.
When he asks her what she wants to do, she says it’s up to him to choose. So he does, and suggests she bring walking shoes.
Amy is staying at the youth hostel just along the esplanade. He picks her up at nine and drives out through Frankton up over the Crown Range back to Wanaka.
She is bright and breezy, like the day, and they resist the temptation to taunt, preferring to find out what there is to know about each other.
Amy is twenty-six; a lawyer from London. If he didn’t already know she is a triathlete, Fin might think her a trifle bookish.
He is reluctant to admit his age at first. But, after she pushes him gently, he admits to being twenty-five. He works at the family vineyard along the valley from Cromwell: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, a little Riesling. But for the moment he is at loggerheads with his father over some issue he is keen not to discuss, so he has decided to take some time away; the job at the information centre is really only a fill-in. Fin also tells her he has a crib on Thompson Street just up from the lakefront, “One of those quaint, clapboard bungalows that boasts a coal range amongst its luxuries.”
He is both pleased and relieved that Amy resists the temptation to compare the local geography to some part of the world she’s previously visited. He’s grown weary of tourists telling him how much the Mackenzie Basin resembles the Cairngorms of Scotland, or Central Otago the Nappa valley. He doesn’t know whether she is alive to it or just doesn’t think that way, but with each kilometre he drives, he feels himself relax more than he has at any time over the past few months.
He turns left at the lake and drives round the south side, passing the campsite at Motutapu and on up the Matukituki valley beneath the soaring flanks of Treble Cone and Black Peak. The road soon turns to gravel and, when it eventually runs out, he pulls up in Raspberry Flat car-park. Ten or so other cars litter the paddock and a couple of climbers, leaning on enormous packs, wait patiently for a heli-transfer up to French Ridge Hut.
“They’ll be going up to Mount Aspiring,” he tells her. “It’s not as easy an ascent as some think.” And, as if to make a point, he adds that of late the mountain has developed something of an appetite for Australians.
Amy wears a fleece vest, shorts and Berghaus Explorers. She has, as he’d expected, well-toned legs.
He offers her some homemade fly repellent, but she doesn’t think she’ll need it and Fin isn’t about to try and convince her otherwise. He has already worked out that Amy does what she wants, not necessarily what others recommend. He is, he knows, much the same, particularly when it comes to dealing with his father.
The Matukituki riverbed is wide and pretty much dry, and as they cross the swing bridge a dust devil blows up and consumes them, forcing them to close their eyes and hang on to each other for a moment.
He carries a modest backpack; first aid kit, space blanket, water and a handful of high-energy oat bars. It isn’t exactly a picnic they are setting out for, but he reckons they’ll need a little sustenance by the time they reach their destination.
Fin leads, pausing every now and then to check his pace isn’t too rapid for her.
It isn’t. He didn’t think it would be as he’s checked her time for the Challenge, but he wants her to know it has crossed his mind. A shade over 11 hours for an Iron Man – 4.8 km swim, 180 km bike ride and a full marathon – is a very respectable time. He tells her so, but she replies that she would like to have been nearer ten than eleven.
They traverse the right-hand side of the valley, gaining height all the while before entering the gorge that leads them up to the foot of the glacier. As the gorge narrows and its slopes steepen, so the roar of the stream below them makes conversation impossible. The air through the forest remains cool and damp, and their path, which winds like a lazy snake – except, he says in case she is concerned, there are no snakes in New Zealand – is shaded by tall silver beech, their limbs garnished with straggling grey beards. Up the path winds, higher and higher towards a bright white wall gleaming through the leaves.
Then, very suddenly, the trees give way to open scrub and before them hangs a vast and magnificent curtain of ice. Countless waterfalls trail off from where the glacier halts abruptly halfway down from the peak and away to the left a solitary cascade of water plummets down a sheer face, dispersing into a mist that bears a permanent rainbow. A muddy-coloured Kea struts about waiting to be fed, its hooked beak intimidating.
Amy sits down on a smooth grey rock to marvel at the immense panorama of ice spread high before her. Every few minutes a slab breaks away from the pack and thunders down the face, splintering and smashing as it tumbles and bounces off the ridges into the valley below.
“Come on,” Fin orders, “let’s go down to the stream. The nearer you get to the base of the glacier, the better the view up to it.” And he leads her down through the gorse to the blue-white meltwaters flowing out down through the gorge.
The stream runs fast, swirling and coursing with considerable force along a narrow, twisting bed strewn with rocks and boulders.
Amy looks up at the fine spray of the tall waterfall to their left, “Can we make it over to that face? I fancy a shower.”
Fin shakes his head in disbelief and sets out to find a way across. But every time he thinks he’s discovered a succession of stepping stones that might help them over to the other side, he is faced with too long a leap for them to make it safely.
“No matter,” she says, removing her boots and socks and sitting down to dangle her feet in the cool water. Amy unties her hair and shakes it out so that it hangs straight down. She leans back and closes her eyes to the sun.
Fin sits down beside her and does the same, except that he glances at her now and again, deciding he has rarely if ever met someone to whom he is so drawn.
“Bloody hell! That so cold it hurts,” she squeals, lifting her feet clear of the water. But immediately she’s said it, she bursts into a fit of giggles.
“Sorry,” she says, rubbing her feet and looking somewhat sheepish, “that wasn’t the smartest observation, was it?”
“Odd, isn’t it?” he replies. “It always seems colder than it has a right to be.” But then Fin can no longer keep the lid on his amusement and he too surrenders to the absurdity of her reaction. “Believe it or not,” he continues, chuckling, “I’ve seen people bathe in this stream. Not for long, mind you. Just a quick immersion, you might say.”
“You’ve got to be joking?” Amy suggests.
So he stands, strips off his shirt and shorts, and clad only in his briefs he walks down to a calmer backwater and eases himself into it.
“Fin?” Amy shouts in terror. “What the hell are you doing?”
And with that, he slides down until the blue-white water closes over his head.
Fin counts to three and that is as much as he can take. He stands up and calmly steps up onto the rock beside her.
“Well,” he says, casually wiping the icy water from his face and hair, “that was bracing.”
“Bracing?” she repeats, laughing. “Aw, Fin, you’re such a boy.”
Fin grins and sits down, hoping his briefs will dry sooner than later. He knows his display is a little cheesy, but for some reason she unhinges him.
Amy looks around, stands up and quickly removes her fleece, vest and shorts, and lays them carefully beside him.
He looks away politely. “Oh, no–”
But when Fin turns his head back, to his amazement Amy pulls her sports bra over her head, rather daintily removes her knickers and throws them on top of the rest of her clothes. She presents her lean buttocks to him and steps very gingerly into the pool, crouching down until she is completely underwater.
Fin begins to count, but doesn’t even get to two.
Amy shoots out of the pool, like a cork out of an agitated champagne bottle. A stream of expletives issue from her hair-covered face and she stands seemingly paralysed for a few seconds, completely and beautifully naked.
But, she realises he is watching her, so she covers up with her hands and stumbles behind a boulder.
“Was that everything you feared it might be?” he asks.
“Said it was bracing, didn’t I?”
“M-m-m,” she mumbles.
“Oh, and Amy,” he pauses.
“You’re such a girl,” he declares, adding, “and as fine a looking lass as has ever been seen naked below Rob Roy Glacier.”
The bars and cafés in the small warren of streets in Queenstown are humming by the time they get back. He treats her to a Fergburger, after which they bar-crawl for the rest of the evening, laughing and giggling like schoolchildren who’ve written something rude on a blackboard.
When time comes to pull the plug on the evening, they have both drunk more than is healthy for their navigation. However, Amy seems reluctant to call it a night, so they lurch and stumble over to his crib which is, he points out, marginally nearer than her hostel.
They sit out on his front step and Amy says she’s never seen so many stars; says she’s never seen the Milky Way so clearly.
Fin shows her how if you draw a line through the Southern Cross and the Pointers, where the two lines intersect, about halfway between the Southern Cross and Archenar; that is where you find the South Celestial Pole.
Some time later they see a shooting star which causes them both, in their own way, to wonder.
Then Fin asks Amy what it is that has made her return to Queenstown. He isn’t fishing for compliments, or so he says, it’s more that he’s got the strangest feeling there is more to her return than merely his vibrant, animal magnetism.
Amy laughs and slaps his shoulder in mock disdain, but then she falls silent. Even in the dark he can see her biting gently at her lower lip.
“Sure, okay, there was,” she begins. “It was after I met you at the café. Or maybe it was what you said. I don’t know.” She pauses, marshalling her thoughts. “As I remember it, after you’d given me that list of all the activities on offer, you said, “if you hunger for a more spiritual experience, then start up at Bob’s Peak,” or something like that. So I did. I took the gondola up to the Skyline and found a quiet spot to sit and take in the view. I saw the Lady of the Lake cruising across Wakatipu. I saw the jagged peaks of the Remarkables standing tall behind the Heights. And I saw this enormous sky that seemed to go on far, far away beyond the horizon. And the weirdest thing happened. I don’t know if I was over-tired, or nervous about the Challenge, or if it was any number of other things, but the lake – look, I know it’s late and I know I’ve had far too much to drink and I know this will sound perfectly stupid, but the lake seemed to be looking back up at me and it seemed to be alive, as though it was sleeping or resting or waiting for me to do something.”
Fin goes to interrupt, but she cuts him off.
“No, wait, please. Give me a minute. I don’t know why, but it set me to think about everything I’ve accomplished in the last few years. And it suddenly dawned on me that the weight of my achievements was holding me down, as though each and every degree or diploma I’ve worked so hard to achieve is pegging me back and reducing any chance I’ll ever have of getting off the wretched hamster’s wheel of my life.”
Fin tries to interrupt again, but Amy holds up her hands in appeal.
“No, one last thing. Please. Just one. And it’s this. Afterwards, when I came down the mountain, I felt curiously unchained, like I’d been turned loose or been released or something. I didn’t really understand it until I was running the marathon leg of the Challenge.
“Just around the distance I was expecting to hit the wall, my legs assumed this extraordinary lightness, as though some wizard had lifted all the weight from me. It was like – like I was running on the air. There, I said it was weird. That’s it. Your turn?”
This time Fin waits until he’s absolutely certain Amy is finished.
“You’re right, in a way,” he says quietly. “It was the lake. Or rather it was the giant.” He pauses. “You remember how the lake is shaped like a man lying on his side; sleeping, almost foetal, but a bit more stretched out. Well, the Māori legend has it that a giant from the mountains in the west, Matau, made off with the beautiful princess Manata. But, while the giant slept, Manata’s lover, Matakauri, rescued her and in the process tied the giant down so that he would not be able to pursue them. It is said that the giant still sleeps, here, and that the lake has been formed by his great weight. We believe that he sleeps deep in the green waters and that the level of the lake rises and falls in time with his breathing. What you saw was the rhythm of the lake. What it was telling you was that it is time for you to leave the giant to sleep and for you to go your own way. It was suggesting to you that it is time for you to be free from whatever it is that holds you down.”
Amy shows no reaction to his conclusion, and for a second he thinks she might have drifted off to sleep with the giant, Matau. But Fin notices her eyes are glinting in the starlight and wonders if she, too, is moved by the legend.
Then she snorts in exactly the same way she had snorted the day before. “Aw, Fin,” she giggles, “and there I was thinking you were too grown up for fairy tales.”
He chuckles. “Oh, let me tell you, we too like our fair share of omens and fairy tales.”
Amy is due to fly out of Queenstown back to London on the Friday afternoon. She asks him not to see her to the airport, so they meet at the café.
Both, they agree, have had a good if rather brief run together and he tells her he looks forward to seeing her again whenever their paths cross.
“Not before too long, I hope,” he adds looking deep into her morning-grey eyes. “Oh,” he continues, pulling a brown-wrapped packet out of his pocket, “I got another epic for you. Didn’t know whether you’d finished the other one?”
“San Miguel? Yes, I have.” Amy removes the wrapper. “The Parihaka Woman by Witi Ihimaera,” she reads. “The cover,” a dark-haired figure, in a white dress, striding away through tussock grass, “I’m sure I’ve seen it before somewhere. It’s strangely familiar.”
Just for the most fleeting of moments, he thinks he sees her eyes water. But, not wanting to provoke another of her snorts, he ignores the temptation to comment further and says simply, “In case you get bored on the plane.”
Amy reaches over, puts her hand behind his neck and pulls his face to hers. She kisses him softly and just long enough for him to appreciate the warmth in her lips.
“Bye, Fin,” she calls as she walks away. “And, thank you for the book.”
Snow comes early to central Otago.
Fin’s self-imposed exile extends and he spends the winter teaching skiing up at Coronet Peak.
However, spring and his mother herald a thaw in the relationship between Fin and his father, so he moves back to the vineyard.
By Christmas the new restaurant Fin has always wanted to run in tandem with the wine tasting tours has taken off and even his father has been overheard to mumble a grudging recognition of his son’s more entrepreneurial abilities.
One late January morning when his father is away for the day, Fin strolls up through the vineyard.
“Chris? How’s it going?” Fin asks.
The winemaker bends to examine the white rose blossom at the end of a row of vines: “Coming along well. Could do with a bit more rain,” he adds, rising, “but then, when couldn’t we?”
“Good crew this season?”
“Most of ’em, yes,” he replies. “New girl down there says she’s met you before.”
Chris frowns. “Yes, Fin, you! And, how would I bloody know where? In case you haven’t noticed I’ve barely had a moment to scratch my backside these last few weeks. Anyway, why don’t you go and ask her yourself? Tan sunhat, blue shirt and jeans.” The winemaker points away down the hill. “And don’t go taking up too much of her time, mate. We don’t stop for brandy and cigars up here, y’know.”
Intrigued, Fin wanders down between the rows of vines to where a group of viticulturists are leaf-plucking.
Like many of the labourers, the girl wears a wide-brimmed hat and long-sleeved shirt, buttoned to her wrists.
“Excuse me,” he starts, “but–”
She turns and smiles: “Hello Fin! Two books, same cover. Omens and fairy tales! Who’s a clever boy?”