"Riders on The Storm"
a short story by Jane Bloomfield
It was the end of a decade, New Year’s Eve, 1979. The air was full of promise and brown Hawkes Bay heat. Bruce had scabbed invites off a boarding school mate to a dance at Ocean Beach. He picked me up from our orchard on the Napier/Hastings road around midday. Dad had been going on all holidays about the drought and apple prices. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
We bought a crate of Tui at the Happy Tav in Havelock North. Then pointed the Kingswood to the beach. The road and our hopes snaking through the burnt grassland of summer.
I had a holiday job at a record store in Napier. I’d made one of my chill-out compilations for the trip. I flipped in the cassette and cranked it up. The Doors’, Riders on the Storm, serenaded us. We wound down the windows, hung out our arms and strummed the beast’s doors, dreaming about getting up close to a beautiful girl. I don’t know about Bruce, but I tingled from head to toe I felt so alive.
‘Girl ya gotta love your man,’ we sang together.
We pulled in to the, Tuki Tuki River before the bridge, for a swim. The grey stones were burning hot on our bare feet and the river was so low we just sat down fully clothed in the nearest pool. The water kinda stunk like an old eel but we didn’t care. We laid back and shared our first cool beer. Bruce fished for green weed with a willow branch. He always did that.
After a bit, I arranged the speakers on the bank and cranked it up. The afternoon ticked by while we drank, soaked up the rays and listened to our favourite tunes. All the words melding together like one big boys-own bible. We took turns changing the cassette and starting up the beast so’s we didn’t end up with a flat battery.
Our threads were dry again by the time we hit the party. The woolshed was practically on the beach. Tidy sets of rollers peeled along the shore break beyond the dunes. The evening sea breeze skipped tumbleweeds along the blond sand.
As the sun dipped behind the cliff, we ran our fingers through our hair, tucked in our t-shirts and walked in. Guys in moleskins and aertex shirts lined the walls, stamping their mark all over that place like a farmers name on a wool bale. They stared at us and we stared back. We found a possie by a wool press, plonked down our crate and tried to look like part of the furniture.
It took ages to warm up. Carloads slowly started arriving. Eventually some of the female kind.
‘Go on Gazza ask her to dance,’ said Bruce. ‘You’ve been gawping at her for half an hour.’
‘Have not. Anyways, she’ll never say yes.’ I was smiling like a halfwit. ‘I think I’m in love.’
‘She’s a fox.’
‘And I’m Basil Brush.’
We burst out laughing. No one got our stupid jokes. Me and Bruce had been mates since primary school, although we’d drifted apart a bit. He’d given me major hass when I said I was staying on at Boys High to do UE and maybe Bursary. He’d got his four subjects School C and bailed. Literally. He was a shearer. Anything to get away from his old man and the farm. Him and me both.
I bent down and got out two bottles from our crate. Then gripped one between my thighs and popped the cap with the other. ‘Down the hatch,’ I said handing it to Bruce.
‘Cheers. If ya can’t get shagged get stupid,’ said Bruce.
I took an involuntary glimpse in her direction. A cow cocky was chewing the fat with her. Cocky’s right. He was practically glued to her. Except she kept looking over her shoulder in my direction.
‘Off ya go ya hunk of spunk,’ said Bruce. ‘I’m going to ask that nice wallflower over there for a dance. She looks lonely.’
Bruce always went for the easy option.
Next thing, Bruce pushed me out onto the dance floor. I stood there looking like a tossa. My beautiful girl was now side on to me. The curve of her body framed by her long brown hair. I inched in her direction. Her white t-shirt was tied in a knot at her waist. She had a strip of tanned skin above her Wranglers. Man she was a sight for sore eyes.
As the music died down she swivelled face on to me. About six feet away now. She had two strands of puka shells wrapped round her neck and a shark’s tooth on a strand of thin leather. And talk about a Colgate smile. All of a sudden, like a flamin miracle she pushed passed the cow cocky. Sliding her heavy heeled boots side to side over the greasy wooden floor, dipping her lean hips round and round out into the room. Closer.
When she got within a foot she spun around. Then that dipstick cow cockey joined her, doing some sort of Staying Alive impersonation. What a homo.
I was just stood there dancing in slow-mo. Then Bruce came up behind me. ‘He’s her brother.’
‘Get off the grass.’
‘I should know I went to school with him. Off ya go Romeo. Man or mouse,’ shouted Bruce and shoved me again.
Next thing ELO came on. Bruce’s song. We went ape-shit, strutting around like a couple of peacocks. Screaming, Don’t Bring me Down B R U C E, as loud as we could. To this day Bruce still maintains his name’s in the lyrics.
We were both pretty messy by then. Some olds appeared with a trestle table of supper. Sausage rolls and ham sandwiches. And another bowl of fruit punch. They probably hoped it would soak up some of the beer and Blenheimer, so there’d be less chunder on the floor. Just about everybody in that shed had a sway on. Some obviously had bottles of spirits stashed out in their cars. It was New Year’s Eve after all.
We mozied outside for a bit of fresh air. It was a scrum around the door. I turned side on to squeeze through. Then whammo, I’m brushing past my girl. She barely looked at me. Just turned her head slightly and talked to a girl beside her. Although she didn’t get out of the way either.
When we got back the room looked a little different. The mums in swirly flowery dresses and aprons were taking away the table. The lights dimmed and the music started.
I made my move. The clock was ticking; so to speak.
She was leaning up against the wall. By herself. I stood in front of her, supporting myself with my free arm on the wall above her head. Smiling, I leant in real close and put my mouth to her ear so she could hear me over the music. Her hair smelt of apple shampoo. My lips brushed her ear, ‘I’m Gary.’ Then I straightened myself and we just stared at each other for bit. Her eyes were brown, like mine.
Next thing she put her mouth to my ear. She said nothing, just gently blew hot air. Then all casual like she sucked my ear lobe. Played with it like a jellybean on her tongue. I pressed up against her. My eyes were shut tight.
Without a word she took my hand and led me passed the in-crowd outside into the night. Moths fluttered around two bare bulbs above the woolshed door lighting up the dusty car park. We stopped at a blue Ute. She still hadn’t spoken. She opened the door, grabbed a sleeping bag and a bottle of Kahlua off the floor. Then we walked down to the beach. My hands were sweating; I thrust them into the front pockets of my jeans.
Just before we stepped into the shadows a male voice called out, ‘Debbie, come ere…’
She started running. ‘Quick.’
‘I can see you Debbie.’
We held hands and ran, swerving left along the beach. We staggered up into the sand dunes and ducked for cover. We heard more shouts. Then he must have given up and gone back to the party.
‘I thought that guy you were dancing with was your brother?’
‘He’s not. Want a swig?’ Then she shook out the sleeping bag and sat down.
We were all alone except for a few stars and the Stones’ Brown Sugar distorted by the distance. I shivered on the cold sand.
‘Get in,’ she said.
I took a glug of the creamy liqueur. It burned my throat. Her breath was a mixture of milk and coffee. And sweet. She pressed her lips to mine. I hadn’t kissed a girl in so long I’d almost forgotten what to do. I tasted the faintest hint of strawberry lip gloss. I resisted the urge to mash my lips against hers. My tongue was like a curious lizard. Flat out.
After a while we lay down. I slipped my hand under her t-shirt. She didn’t have a bra on. I pulled up her top and took a swig of Kahlua. Then I did the thing I heard one of the guys at footy boasting about in the changing shed. She mewed like a kitten and held my hair in her fists. Next she pulled me back to her lips. We were locked like that for ages. I was the rider on the storm. I was slipping through a space of tongues and lips and skin and bone and words, always words cascading in my head. …The world on you depends, Our life will never end, Gotta love your man. Yeah.
That was until someone grabbed my shoulder. And screamed, ‘get off her arsehole. She’s mine.’
‘Leave me alone Pete, it’s over,’ she cried.
‘He’ll be over, if you don’t get him off you.’
‘We’re not going out any more. Why can’t you get that through your thick skull?’
‘How could you? Drop me? Tonight of all nights? For this goon?’
‘You don’t own me.’
Next thing the cockey tries to pull Debbie out of the sleeping bag. But we’re kind of wedged in. I’m holding Debbie around the waist. I felt totally useless. I was about to say, look mate give it a rest, she’s moved on. Or something helpful like that.
In the distance they were counting in the New Year. Then someone came up behind me and put the boot in. I felt my head jolt sideways. Then nothing.
I came round in the morning woken by the warmth of the sun. Alone. My head was pounding. The hair behind my ear was caked with blood and sand. My t-shirt was lying beside me tangled up with Debbie’s. The stupid bastard didn’t even let her get dressed. What a tosser. I got out of the sleeping bag, staggered over the sand dunes and back up the beach. Side stepping occasionally past sleeping couples. When I made it to the car park I took a piss behind the Kingswood.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ I yelled pounding the car roof with my fist. The moon was a sliver of white light in the pale morning sky. The thick dew a mercury droplet tent over the car.
Bruce groaned. ‘What are ya?’
‘Let’s just drop one and dissolve man.’
‘What’s the hurry? They might put on some chops for brekkie. You missed the fireworks. They were grouse.’
I opened the door. ‘Move over dipshit. I’ll drive, you’re still coma’d.’
‘Where’s Miss Ocean Beach? Give you the heave ho for being a slack root?’
Bruce didn’t notice my bloody ear. I started the beast and pushed in a cassette. Supertramp’s, Even in the Quietest Moments, came on. Bruce’s head knocked against the passenger window as I dropped a fat in the car park and spun onto the shingle.
‘Shit man. I wanted to go for a swim. A New Year’s day cleanse.’
We headed up the narrow cliff face road leaving the beach and the woolshed behind.
‘Come on then, spill,’ said Bruce.
A shiver went up my spine and I said nothing, just concentrated on keeping the beast steady through the twisty gravel. I took the cattle stop too fast and we both just about hit the roof.
‘Easy mate. The beast can fly when it wants to remember? Why are you so anxy anyway, I thought you copped off?’
‘Just drop it eh?’
‘Hey slow down we’re coming up to that gnarly corner,’ said Bruce.
I changed down and pumped the Kingswood’s spongy brakes. Thankfully no one was coming as I flew round the tight bend and lined up for the one way bridge. As we passed a flash of black and blue hit my eyes.
‘Pinch and a punch…’ said Bruce, thrusting out his right arm.
I elbowed him and slammed on the brakes.
‘Up ya nose with a rubber hose…,’ said Bruce.
I backed up, the motor whining as I swerved roughly onto the verge. I got out of the car and walked back along the road. The shingle digging into my feet. Then I looked over the bridge railing. My legs were jelly. Truth be told I was cacking it at that point. The creek bed was narrow with water flowing on one side. Six feet from the bridge was an upturned car. The roof was flattened and clumps of mud and green grass rested like flags behind the wheels.
‘Fuck a duck,’ said Bruce, ‘that baby didn’t make the corner.’
We both ran back along the road and scrambled over the fence, through some cutty grass into the water. The windows had popped out and the windscreens smashed. A regular backyard showpiece.
I just stood there in the water. The rear of the car had formed a dam with a submerged willow trunk. I edged around the side and bent down. Next thing all the hope and confusion of the night before flew out of my mouth in a scalding stream.
‘Holy shit man you’re giving me the creeps now,’ said Bruce, inching over to where I was standing. I must have fainted at that point. Apparently I dropped to my knees and started bobbing about face down in the stirred up stream.
I came too with Bruce shaking my shoulders. ‘Mate you’ve cut yourself. Let’s get out of here.’
‘We’ve got to help them,’ I said.
‘It’s too late. Take a look for yourself.’
‘It’s her, isn’t it? I said.
‘I can’t be sure,’ said Bruce. ‘I only saw lots of…hair.’
I ran back to the car and got the crowbar.
‘Let’s call the cops eh? This is bigger than the both of us,’ said Bruce.
‘They might still be alive.’
I jammed the metal hook into the passenger door and wrenched it with all my might. The car moved but the door didn’t budge.
‘I thought she was with you?’ said Bruce accusingly. ‘How did she end up in shit creek?’
It wasn’t a time for dumb jokes. I’ll never forget that line.
‘Call the cops,’ I yelled, trying the door again.
‘What? On our bat phone?’
We heard the sound of an engine and a farmer popped over the culvert on his happy red tractor. He took one look at us and the car and said; get on.
He took us back to his house and sat us down in his dark kitchen. He cranked the handle on this old black phone on the wall and said; 111 please. His wife was cooking breakfast. Eggs fried in mutton fat, doorstep toast and heaps of hairy bacon. I sipped the tea she put in front of me. The mug was chipped.
The cop who turned up looked about as young as me and Bruce. He asked questions and scribbled untidy notes. By the time we went back to our car the fire brigade and the ambulance were parked up. I’d never seen a body bag before. I hoped it was my last.
It ended up it was just her in the car. She must have got away from that creep and taken off in his Ute. She would have been so upset she’d floored it. Losing control.
It was supposed to be a start of a new era. Our decade of luv, Bruce said. What a crap start.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Debbie. My nightmares were dark and wet and tangled with the smell of river and apple shampoo.
We went to her funeral in the St Lukes Church in Havelock North. It was a big turnout. Me and Bruce stood at the back. I had a hipflask of Kahlua in my pocket. I skulled it when that jerk did his reading. I recognized his voice. And the trousers.
There was a big framed photograph of Debbie on the altar. She smiled out at us crying back at her. I closed my eyes during the prayers and remembered. That night. Her silent urgency. My face burned.
We snuck out before the coffin. I didn’t want to see the pallbearers.
Bruce was away shearing most of the summer. I kept working at the record store. Though every song seemed to be about dying, not falling in love. I listened to them all. They became my new mantra.
And the rain never came.