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Short story: Follower, by Emma Neale

Don’t be a creep and don’t follow women”: Dunedin, December 2020

 

Aaron is downtown buying a computer mouse when a woman catches his eye. The cut of recognition stops him, mid-stride, then hauls him around in an awkward heel-spin. “Case?” Her name falls inaudible under the sudden yammer of sirens. Fire engines, cops, ambulance, are all trying to push through a snarl of Saturday traffic. He flinches from the tripled shrill of the sirens, and swears everyone else on George Street halts too: all of them together in a brief Pompeii of dread. The emergency is most likely another crash out on the coastal highway, near the notorious turn-off into the first seaside village past town. Yet even guessing the probable scenario, it’s hard for Aaron to shake the sensation that his new city is on the verge of some much larger crisis.

The city’s three graduation ceremonies, staggered over the week for both varsity and polytechnic, have been abruptly cancelled after a bomb threat. Yet streets and malls still teem with graduands in academic regalia, resolute in their plans to celebrate with friends and relatives, many of whom have travelled here from all around the country. Pub and café courtyards have been busy from noon, full of customers keen to make the most of glorious weather. The sky is a subtle Wedgewood plate, thin wreaths of white relief clouds looped on blue. So is Aaron projecting, when he thinks some punters still look as if they are trying to drink away an apprehensive edge, asking themselves, are other crowded venues default targets for the bomber now?

As the emergency vehicles finally get momentum through the intersection to surge north, Aaron forces away his own unease. “Case!” he calls again, to the woman in the long, poppy print dress and red ankle boots.

Perhaps, if he was still awash with the early, king tide years of missing her, he might hesitate. He’d learnt, back then, that an exhausted mind played tricks: after repeatedly revisiting loss, it could beam out its own hologram. Rumpled fall of hair, tucked down glance, bright skirts in a sway and swirl as she walks. But the sight of her now is so vivid it stings: the slip of a knife.

He tries to slalom through the pedestrian crush: which seems now to be mainly young women in black academic robes. He feels a cramp in his calf from overtraining; he’s been cycling a lot, lately, in a “futile fight against the inevitable,” as his wife calls it. Irritation and pain make him grunt: a graduand skitters out of the way. “Ohmigod, personal space,” she says, scooping the hem of her graduation gown up, as if to keep it away from contagion. 

He sees Casey turn in to the main entrance of the Meridian Mall, the red boots and cheerful fabric print easily visible at a distance. Festive, vibrant: the colours seem so right for the inner windfall of confidence she’d had at university, years ago. A lift of her chin, the quick toss of her hair tell him how that confidence has bedded in, flourished. Somehow his heart copies: something light and silvering, so unexpected, bubbles to the surface.

Town is full-on today. The drone of a busker in homespun jersey, who bounces at the knees as he claps and sings beyond-badly, clashes with the finger-cymbals and chanting of a petite, bald Hare Krishna devotee who dances by, trying to hand out small zip-lock bags of dried fruit and nuts to strangers. People flinch from the gesture as if the man has coughed or sneezed. Aaron dodges the approach too, his calf on the verge of cramp again. He fumbles for his phone, so he can scan in with the Ministry of Health tracer app at the mall’s entrance. He’s usually one of the few still to do so here at Level 1. His wife’s colleagues from Auckland comment on how lax their southern counterparts are when they travel down for meetings. His wife herself scoffs at the QR codes everywhere, saying there are no Covid cases this far south now, so what’s the point? But Aaron still scans: thinks of it as a quiet prayer, like the Jewish custom of touching the mezuzah, on the doorpost of a home. It is a request for safe passage. The app glitches and stalls. He shakes his phone, an irrational tic, and flicks his phone’s camera function on by mistake; tries to turn it off but knocks the selfie function instead; is repelled by a sudden confrontation with the grey in his unkempt curl of fringe, his tired, bulldog eyes and frown lines, deep as a branding, that meet in a triangle between his eyebrows. He grimaces, pockets the device, thinking, she won’t even want to know me and immediately realises he’s lost sight of her. He scopes the mall’s bustling atrium, searching for her in the throng, and with a lurch of relief, catches a shiver of red up at a height: scarlet boots, a poppy print skirt that swings, as a woman steps off the escalator. 

To the rhythm of what was it, Case, what was it, he covers the distance to the moving staircase in a few painful strides, then takes the steps two at a time, ignoring the burn in his quads and not caring how bluntly pissed his ’scuse-me sounds to the teenagers standing two abreast, blocking his way. 

Aaron sees Case join a café line that stretches out the door into the atrium on the upper level. As the queue shifts forward, she looks over her shoulder. Her glance slips across him as indifferently as water over stone. 

He freezes. Casey? Can he be 100 percent sure? There is a new softness around her jaw. Her shoulders seem thin, almost stooped. He tries to angle their outline over the memory of her and her rowing partner, Suhana, hoisting the double-scull shell out of the boatshed down at the Oreti River; their strokes gliding them all out onto the water, with him as coxswain; the tight gloss of sunburn on Casey’s upper arms when she’d forgotten sunscreen. He recalls the surprisingly cool slope of one shoulder under his hand, the night she wore a spaghetti-strap dress to the dental school ball. She’d invited him up from Invercargill: she didn’t explain who he was to anyone, and he played along, knowing he was there to make some law school guy think she’d gotten over his sorry ass.

That dance was held out on the peninsula, at Larnach Castle. They’d talked outside on the castle’s grand entrance steps, the spray of stars above them gleaming like a school of phosphorescent fish suspended in a dark swell. Someone else in Casey’s friend-set said, more like cosmic rice, at a god’s wedding. Later, when they’d talked about their hometown, how she knew she was expected back there, to help out in the family practice, he’d looked up at the giant, lucky horseshoe of the moon. He dwelt on the idea of the ruts people fell into, asked her what she really thought about marriage. Her earnestness then was almost hectoring. She said other women in her student hall agreed: “It’s totally tainted by history, men treating women as chattels. It’s patriarchal bullshit.” She rattled through assertions that filled him with a wild scramble of things he wanted to say, all of it cresting, collapsing. He drank too fast, racing to beat the next tumbling wave of objections, never managing. It was naïve, simple, to ask what he had. 

The café’s cashier disappears into the kitchen. Casey checks her watch. It gives him a surreal, brittle pang, to see that twist of her wrist, as if the gesture is a shibboleth. He wears a watch, too, even in this age of smartphones; it is like a sign he and Case were forged together in the habits and expectations of the same displaced decades. Swallowing, he glances at his Garmin GPS, pretends to adjust something: miming nonchalance.

Of course she’s moved on when he finishes his charade — Jesus. Does he actually want to lose her again? Afraid, is he, to confront what her reappearance might reveal of what little concern she has — or ever had — for their shared past? Fuck the fear and do it anyway, he thinks. It could be his last chance.

He can’t see her on the downwards-travelling escalator. On instinct, he makes for the JB Hi Fi store. Inside, it is visual mayhem. The space bristles with hand-lettered yellow sale signs, in lightning bolt or comet form, like the pow, bam, zap of comic book fight scenes. Even on a normal day these megastores give him the shits (how can we keep producing, packaging, selling this much crap?), but today, the mock-fires and explosions of all the MUST GO NOW! signs jerk his thoughts back to the city’s bomb scare. Fresh urgency accelerates him up and down the aisles, as if recognition from Casey will anchor him; might even be the antidote for everything in the present that spirals towards implosion. If he could hear, “Aaron?” infused with her happy wonder; if that could lift them up out of the stream of time … 

A staff member ambles in front of him, pushing a small trolley of plastic-sheathed DVDS. The guy is slack-jawed, has an outsized green-dyed quiff, a salting of dandruff on his shoulders, Terminator tattoo showing on his upper arm. The terrible design of this picture, the obstacle, all seed such disproportionate rage in Aaron that he balls his fists — not as weapons, but as anchors to hold him back from shoving trolley and mouth-breather out of the way. “For fuck’s sake,” he hisses to himself, but he does not meet eyes. He keeps moving, moving. 

Casey darts along past aisle after aisle and back out of the store again. He trails her, air clenching in his chest, because he has to get the first words to her exactly right. The tension ripples like the moments before the starter’s pistol at a regatta. 

He hurries after her and sees her pull ahead along the main thoroughfare, then step aside at the Vodafone store. She must be heading in to ask about repairs or something; she takes her own phone out of her handbag. Now she seems to be taking a photo of something behind Aaron. Her expression says there is a calamitous incident behind him (police apprehending the bomber?). He throws a glance over his shoulder but all he sees is the general milling of young people in the rainbow of shoes, skirts and lipsticks like bursts of bright laughter against their sober academic gowns. Then she is making the call, to report the oddness of the man who has trailed her, stopped and waited whenever she has, unnerving her even in broad daylight. 

As soon as she frowns and taps her phone screen, her face hard, as if anger and fear lace it tight at the back of her scalp, he understands. So he slips away.

Some of the extra police deployed in the city, to show increased presence while investigators work on tracking the graduation bomb threat, are on foot-patrol nearby. They soon get the alert. Fit, tall, lean, and at least 10 years younger than Aaron, they barely have to break into a jog to draw alongside him on St Andrew Street, where he wanders in slow dissociation. The cops greet him with the curt gentility they might a toddler heading into traffic, “Kia ora, there, mate, where you headed?”

“Nowhere, really.”  

The male cop clears his throat. “We’ve had a call saying you’ve been following a woman. What’s up?”

“Not sure what you mean.”

The shorter, dark-haired female officer with a moko kauae, squints at him. “You might need to take a good look at yourself.” She holds up a photo of him on her phone; she’s already been sent through the image the woman took on George Street.  

“Yup. Okay,” Aaron says. 

“What’s the story?” says her colleague.

“I’m sorry,” says Aaron. “I just wanted to speak to her. She looks like my sister. Casey Aldridge.”

Missing persons register, thirty years on. Every now and then, around Christmas, when news stories are slow, there are recaps in the press of unsolved mysteries. Or, when someone else vanishes, people make comparisons; Michael John Dudley, Mona Blades, Kirsa Jensen … Casey Aldridge, who, shortly after her own graduation, rolled up all her clothes into neat balls and left them in a mosaic rectangle pattern on her bed; took all her books off their shelves, lined them up on the carpet as if tiling her floor with them, and then left her accommodation. Nobody noticed her go.  

Just two days beforehand, Aaron and his parents had driven up from Invercargill to attend her graduation ceremony, and taken her out to a roast dinner at a place with white tablecloths, candles inside opaque red glass lantern hoods, a daunting assortment of cutlery. Their father had embarrassed everyone, asking the other diners to toast Casey, then asking the waiter where he came from, oh what percent was he exactly, was it from his mother’s or his father’s side, and then cracked what he thought was a shrewd, savvy joke. The last thing Aaron really remembered Casey saying was a chilly, deadpan, “What’ve you taken, Dad?”

Aaron had doubted the wisdom of moving here, to Dunedin, for his wife’s work, back in January. The reasons he gave had nothing overtly to do with Casey. But he must have had some instinct that an event like the one on George Street was dwelling there, behind his hesitations, even as his wife deflected each excuse as persuasively as if instructing a jury from her podium.

“Casey Aldridge?” the woman cop flexes a hand on the air: a strange, readying gesture. His sister’s name is a grim passport, even to cops younger than him.

She taps through a few items on her phone. “Not the name she gives. But if y’ think there’s any chance …” she leaves the suggestion incomplete: discretion, almost, Aaron thinks. He doesn’t like the fact that he so immediately relents; that he can move this easily from emotion to emotion, as if each one is merely the next tone bar in a xylophone, ting, ting, ting

How much of him wants to land and stay on anger. Let it marinate and thicken. He craves its energy, imagines it giving him the thrust to push through the creeping placidity of his own daily resignations: to finally say all the things he’s never said, do all the things he’s held himself back from, because he’s been busy being the good son, the child who stayed, never lost touch, the rock, the survivor. If he had unleashed the immensity of his anger back then, his fury that the family narrative could just step off into a void, leave the vast devastation of how, why

The police end their quiet showdown, giving him a warning. He knows it contains an unspoken fleck of grit: Don’t be a creep and don’t follow women. Then there is a thin forgiveness in the male cop’s, “You’re all good to go, mate.”

Aaron is jangled, his calf is being a bastard; he limps through a fog of confusion and a sinking, leaden sadness on his way back to the Meridian car park. He gets into the car, becomes an automaton in the stop-start through the dense traffic caused by hospital construction, the graduation crowds, pre-Christmas shoppers; Dunedin like a kid in dress-ups: Let’s play big cities! 

He arrives at the look-out on Signal Hill with no memory of waiting at the lights, making the turns, or the gear changes for the ascent to travel there. 

Although the day was warm and sunny downtown, up on the peak a cool, brisk wind tousles his hair and whips at his clothes. He walks out past the 1940s centennial monument to get the sweeping view over the city. The scoop and curve of the harbour churns a spruce green in the fresh wind; past Andersons Bay and St Clair, the Pacific is a navy blue stripe. A white plank of cloud extends along the horizon. 

He tries to pick out the town hall from the clutter of tiny Lego piece buildings crammed in the central city. If graduation had gone ahead, and the bomber had carried out their threat, would it have been visible from here? (If it really was a terrorist, not just some disgruntled student pulling a hoax. When he checks his phone for news, the authorities are still saying nothing about leads.) He imagines a column of smoke, but guesses the wind and distance might erase the weeping of sirens. 

If he had let his rage have its way, back when he was seventeen, eighteen? There were days he’d wanted to lash out at his father, who wouldn’t countenance the fact that, as the months of silence stacked up, Case might have deliberately severed ties. Their father’s boorishness, his petty bullying, would have been grounds for it, Aaron thought, at first. But then, as autumn drew into winter, he shared his mother’s fear that someone had abducted Casey. How did a young woman just disappear?

She’d intended to look for work in Wellington. No trace of her there; she’d never made contact with the friend she was going to doss with. 

How did you not smash up cars, burn the police station down, go after any former boyfriend to throttle them with your own bare hands, when nobody could give you anything, not even a maddeningly tantalising clue? 

You didn’t. You just didn’t. You didn’t add to the pain, the uneven weight of the world’s bewildering scales. There were days he tried to get his mother to eat, took her to the GP and talked on her behalf to ask for some kind of help that would pick her up off the floor. There was the year he postponed going to university. Then four years later, there was the day he cancelled flights for his big O.E.: each change of plans because his mother had slipped into another episode, and his father was useless about it, to be honest: an emotionally illiterate sack. 

If Aaron had cut loose, in all the ways that had tempted him …

At the base of the viewing arena, he eases off down the steps which lead into some shrubs. Favouring his nagging calf in a way that sends a sudden searing pinch to the base of his spine, he shuffles along the foot tracks that wind around the commemorative monument. He is startled by the view through a gap in the bushes, which looks straight at a seated bronze figure on the memorial’s eastern side. It is a sculpture of someone holding a spindle of wool. Massive, blocky, female, she is spinning the thread of life, the future: or so a Google search on his phone tells him. There doesn’t seem to be a plaque explaining the figures on either flank of the monolith. Her eyes are white, as if blind, in the green of her face — but he can’t tell whether they’ve been vandalised, or whether they were blank by original design. It seems right, though, that the future should be spun blindly, and by a young woman. Not that he can say his sister is responsible for the pain that has flowed from her disappearance. Not that at all — but that so much unforeseen stemmed from it. His father’s increasing irascibility; his mother’s depression; their divorce. Maybe even Aaron’s marriage to his poised, powerhouse wife, whose career sweeps him up and along, like the deceptively benign gleam of a riptide. (He has submitted to its certainty, has he? Because he lost the drive to push himself forward, after Case?) That is why the statue disconcerts him. It is cold and unlikeable in its imperious size, its gravid indifference; yet somehow, so dauntingly right. 

He thinks of all we can’t know about what ripples out from our actions. If Case was abducted: the perpetrator, did they ever contemplate what harm they’d done, not only to her, but also to everyone who loved her? Didn’t that haunt them? Why couldn’t these people — bombers, saboteurs, killers — see that putting their own pain outside them, into the world, here’s a fire for what burns my memory, here’s a bullet for what haunts me, only multiplies the first wound, never heals it? 

He walks back around the monument, the empty flagpole, back to the sundial without a gnomon, back to the safety railing and the view of the city, the sea and the sky. He stares at the green ocean, the tawny hills, then the sky’s high and cobalt wash. No fires, no smoke column. He waits for the clear sight of it to settle in him like a tribute. A gift, maybe, from all the grief-trammelled people out there who bear their own losses, as real and permanent as the colour of their gaze, but who also hold back; who do not commit reprehensible acts.

Next week’s short story is a modern romance by Auckland confessionalist Fergus Porteous

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