May 20 2022

by Jane Copland


I am eighteen today. I have been banned from every sports facility in the city of Napier, New Zealand.

They said I swore at a child.

Dad and I drive through flat farmland dotted with iron-roofed pubs and fresh fruit stands to the village of Clive, one mile within the neighbouring Hastings district and outside my zone of exclusion. We have done this every day since my banishment two weeks ago. In twenty years’ time, if somebody asks me what my last years on the roads between Napier and Hastings were like, I will tell them a story of hatred and revolt and obscenity. A story of fear and violence and numb resignation, and the first itchy, fungal blooms of C-PTSD. I won’t talk about the midsummer evenings of pavement melting like black treacle, and dreams and laughter and pop music in the car park outside the Clive pool, eyes turned to the Pacific Ocean, Dad at the wheel.

It’s Friday, one-thousand degrees at five p.m., and the indicators on every bushfire danger sign are turned hard right. I have one foot up on the dash of the last Nissan he will buy in this country, its colossal aftermarket subwoofer not matched by any vehicle I’ll own until my mid-thirties, elbow balanced on the window frame, his new 2002 diary on my lap. He uses a thick blue biro, recording numbers between the narrow grey lines. It’s my eighteenth birthday and I am fast. I am the fastest woman in this country. The Clive War Memorial Pool is the single worst swimming facility into which I’ll ever have the displeasure of sliding my body: water like blue milk, toilets an open sewer of sodden loo roll and piss, and the air rancid with the impossible smell of concrete on fire. But it is still nominally water, and in it, I am the fastest.

They didn't ask me if I swore, or at whom. They just said I did it.

The car park sits between a black asphalt road and the grim corrugated pool shack, elms and maples providing strategic shade in the blaze of afternoon sun, pointed hard and high from the northwest. Behind the pool, two rugby pitches with grass like dust separate the pool and car park from the widening mouth of the Clive River. There is never anybody else here, save for the sudden rude influx of a surf lifesaver training group into the pool for an hour every other morning, churning the water in the lanes beside mine and staring at me, a mile from the border across which I am not allowed to swim, filthy, misbehaved, shameful. On an evening like this, there is no rugby and no cricket, no dog walkers. The streets and parks are as quiet as midwinter. Eleven thousand miles away in Scotland it is Burns Night, and it is my birthday, and I am eighteen.

Dad and I, and his diary, cross the border back into Napier. Beside a lonely train track whose services all but ceased ten years ago, palm trees and awkwardly adopted Norfolk pines make an attempt to claim the town as picturesque, tropical, a destination. State Highway 2 becomes a modest country road to the town’s north. You only come here if you mean to stay, and so the tourist trap tale is a story of necessity. But the meticulously recorded split times and distances tell a story that not even throwing me beyond the city walls can unwrite. We are the only people who exist at five p.m. on this inferno of a midsummer Friday, and we have never been happier.

Dad grew up somewhere up there in the bush off of State Highway 2, raising Alsatians and dachshunds and killing one or two wild boars, but he will tell you that the worst of them, he met down here. I took three years of heels and elbows to the ribs underwater, at the mercy of grown men whose children swam on a rival swim team, before they got me, not actually muttering fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you cunt motherfuckers burn under my breath.

Blue, concrete-infused milk that, at some point, had been on fire. That is where I will finish honing my craft.

We conduct the post-training debrief in the car, because the air inside the pool’s shack not only smells bad; it irritates the lungs and the skin, a developmental necessity in the lifespan of a chronic cough I will call my own until roughly the day after I leave these towns, the twin cities of Hawke’s Bay. Windows down, radio on, my fingers trace the numbers he’s recorded. The evidence. Proof, when telling a story, has been an unnecessary and absent distraction for most of the people I have met here, but here I have mine in blue on grey. Imagine for me, the art of putting your hand into water and pulling it back, and being able to fly.

"You’ve got this," Dad says. "You’ll swim away from here, and you’ll never have to come back." The road home tracks north and east next to the ocean, skirting the industrial grey sand of Hawke’s Bay with chicken wire and gauze griddling the view of the sea, over which exists the rest of the world, and over there they don’t know who I am. Over there, no one will jerk their heels into my ribs and twist just so, up and down and in, aiming for the flesh of stomach. To our right, two fertiliser and compost plants belch sulphur across the road and the bay but I don’t wind up the window, arm in the breeze, stereo belching back at the factories and we are laughing, milky and chlorinated, towels for my clothing and stopwatches his jewelry. I am eighteen today. It is Burns Night.

I will leave later in the year, in the midwinter. Twenty years will pass and I’ll turn a bottle of Hawke’s Bay chardonnay in my hands at Marks & Spencer in North Oxford and run my finger down the simple new world label, across the practical silver screw-top. I’ll read the awards and reviews and I’ll buy it and it will be golden, delicious, heaven. I am back in the car, hands in the wind and vindication neatly printed on lined diary paper, whooping in the sulphuric haze en route to my first legal glass of the same, and in the supermarket in Oxford I’ll put the bottle in my basket. If you ask me what it was like, I will tell you a horror story, but I am not telling the whole truth because there were afternoons on which we were the happiest people on earth. In the car with my dad. On my eighteenth birthday.

They bring me a miniature birthday cake at the restaurant in Ahuriri that night, but I’ll forget what I wish for when I blow out the candles, a one and an eight. On the other side of the sea that forms the eastern border of the town whose condemnation marks my last months in New Zealand, I will find what I am looking for regardless.

Twenty years pass. I drink the Hawke’s Bay chardonnay. I tell people, I remember it like it was today.

I never swore at anyone.

That night somebody stole the Nissan from outside our house, drove it to the plains north of the Clive River and blew it up. At four in the morning, we were woken by a deliberately long, loud knock on the sliding glass front door of our bungalow. The boom of the car exploding had woken local residents half a mile away. The usual method, the policeman explained, was to joy-ride the car for an hour or so, then set light to a rag draped into the petrol tank. My parents went to see the wreck, the paint burnt off even the number plate, only raised characters on aluminum providing the car’s ID. Fifteen meters away, my mother found the remains of a tail light, melted black at one end but still relatively fully formed at the other.

It is neat isosceles, billowing like the spinnaker of a yacht. It looks rather odd up there with the delicately painted porcelain plates, the large silver candlesticks and the small bust of Beethoven. I cross the world for Christmas and I sit at the piano I no longer remember how to play and we look at each other, the taillight and me. When the sun shines in through the dining room window it glows a hot orange and you know what it’s seen, and although safely at home you can still feel the fire.



Jane Copland is the Creative Nonfiction editor at VirtualZine. Her work has been published in The Independent, Newsroom New Zealand, Ellipsis Zine, JMWW Journal, the London Independent Story Prize, Spelk, Fairlight Books, Intrepid Times, Reflex Fiction, Entropy Mag, trampset and Tandem Press. She is a 2021 Pushcart Prize nominee, and her stories have been shortlisted in the Fresher Prize, New Millennium Writing, and the Nobow Press short story competition. She is from New Zealand and lives in Oxford, England.