An Experience

story about escape

And you’re happy to work? she asked, repeating my phrase back to me. Yes, I said. I’ll be coming from a competition and just want to take a week somewhere quiet before classes start again. What kind of competition? I hoped my impatience didn’t carry down the line. Freediving, I said. She gave something like a snort. Isn’t that like drowning, slowly? I did not know the woman’s name or anything about her save that she was not the owner of the homestead and macadamia orchard. Just taking care of the place, she said.

My sister had passed on the details – an email address and phone number – after I mentioned that I’d like to do some WWOOFing following my next freediving competition. It fell in the holidays between uni terms, and my part-time job at the language resource centre wouldn’t need me until classes started either.

Mum took me there one summer when you were with Dad, my sister said. I think the guy who owned the place used to be her shrink. It’s half falling down, and they always struggle to get anyone to pick the nuts.

Somehow, I could not picture a macadamia orchard. We used to go berry picking with our dad when we were small, and last year, when I went to Thailand for my first international competition, our club captain had arranged a trip to a Buddhist temple; afterwards, the driver stopped off at a cashew processing plant. Placards showed the terrible conditions the workers endured – deadly spikes, toxic oils – before we were shepherded through to a neon-lit store.

When I asked my sister, though, she said that she had picked a few. Not dangerous. Just boring.

I could take the bus from Tauranga towards the Coromandel. It stopped at the local beach, the woman told me down the line. It was easy to walk up to the homestead from there. She could have driven to meet me, she added, but… She trailed off. I called her once again, halfway through the competition. One of my fellow club members, Lee, had asked if he could tag along. It makes no difference to me, she said, and hung up.


It took us half an hour and a pathway ending in a marsh to tell us her directions were amiss. I suggested we retrace our steps and ask somebody local, so we left the township twice – the second time with coffee beans and several blocks of chocolate. I’m not taking any chances, Lee said.

I had to admit that the shops along the beachside strip where the bus had dropped us off offered better choice than their salt-eaten frontages would suggest. At first, my eyes practically glided past them; the beach itself was a dreamy curve of creamy sand. Each end rose in a bluff, the grey stone sprouting dark green leaves and red pohutakawa tufts. The shops, though, were fascinating – some from the days when the railway was built – and Lee had to tug me away from one bungalow I got caught up in admiring.

This felt a little out of character for Lee. From the first time we’d met, I had loved his calm. There’s a danger, when you’re getting ready for a long dive, that you’ll get yourself too excited. If you hype yourself too much, your heartbeat starts to rise, your fat blood-bodies crave fresh air, and you find your throat contracting thirty seconds down. But Lee has tranquillity. His face radiates this glow of peace. It’s a kind of emptiness you can lose yourself inside.

The second path we took led us around the outskirts of the wetlands on a wooden walkway overlooking reeds and grass. As we had been instructed, we crossed the lawns in front of the old railway station and slipped down a grassy bank to the sunken, overgrown remainder of the lines. On either side, the ground rose up in grassy slopes topped with harakeke. The tui song distracted us from our mosquito bites. A dash across a highway and another twenty minutes up a driveway that curved around the edges of a hill – then I saw the letterbox I’d been told would be our sign.

The sun was on the brink of sinking down behind the hill, casting the pathway we’d followed in a dampened shroud. But the homestead – a wide-decked old house, with a newer second tier in the same cream and red – caught the last thick wash of gold. I knocked while Lee rested on the deck, eyes closed, face alight. No one answered. I knocked again, then tried the handle. The door swung ajar.

I turned back to Lee for a nod or word of restraint, but he was distracted by a skinny cat on the path. He clicked his tongue, rubbed his fingers. I sighed and stepped inside, calling out, Hello? As the façade had suggested, there was an old-fashioned cleanness to the wide sweep of the kitchen and the large living room with its iron fireplace.

I was halfway down the corridor when I heard voices outside. At first, I thought it was Lee talking to the cat. Then I caught the same voice that had given me such misleading directions.

She looked a few years older than us – maybe twenty-five? – and her fringe fell across one eyebrow, making her look permanently sceptical. She squinted at me, hands on hips. Make yourselves at home, why don’t you?

Lee stood, introduced me: This is Ace – he’s the one who called you up. She nodded. Naomi. She did not offer her hand.

We followed her inside. Take any room along there, she said, pointing down the corridor. But never go upstairs. Lee had turned back to the deck, beckoning the cat. And the macadamias? I asked. Now she sounded irritated. They can wait.


The macadamia orchard overlooked the house. Past the slope, you could see the old railway tracks we’d followed, the marshland, and in the morning light a green-blue line of sea. Originally, the trees had been planted ten rows by ten, but at some point two rows had been taken out – or at least that’s what Lee said, pointing out the ground along the far edge of the field.

For my part, I noticed the dew, still heavy on the grass in the shade of the orchard. The trees were all at least twice my height, and some branches ended in a couple of large, green husks the tapered shape of a fig; soon we saw that other branches held clusters of five or six.

The curtains in the room we’d chosen turned out to be quite worn through, so we both woke early with the sun. While I took a shower outside, Lee ground down some coffee beans and made a thick, black brew. The old coffee pot was just one of his discoveries. Large boxes in the cupboard held staples like flour, dried pasta, and rice, and eventually we found an old loaf of bread, hard but not yet mouldy. There was no sign of Naomi. Still upstairs, I guessed.

Through the leaves that masked the outdoor shower from the pathway to the house, I had spotted the old shed. It looked promising, so after toast and coffee, we decided to explore. Inside was a wooden hopper with instructions for husking the macadamias. A set of wide drawers at the far end of the room turned out to have half a dozen lonely brown nuts inside. This is where we’ll put them to dry out once they’re husked, Lee said. I trusted him on this.

In the end, we decided not to wait for Naomi to show. Splitting the nets and two long sets of clippers between us, we took a large wheelbarrow each, crushing the occasional green husk as we went. These should have been picked by now, Lee said, and gestured to the nuts scattered through the grass. Several had large gouges in them. Rats? I asked. Must be, Lee said. We nudged the fallen shells aside – at least the ones that looked spoiled – and set up the netting around one tree’s base.

By eleven, both our wheelbarrows were heaving with nuts. I had shimmied up the first tree, reaching for the highest clusters while Lee worked the lower boughs, and we’d alternated like this until we were sweating and several trees were bare.

I took off my top, and Lee paused before doing the same. Though the sun was high, the grass still felt damp against my back. When he catches the light, Lee’s face is smooth and glows like he’s fresh from a dive, taking in that first deep breath. I was surprised at just how close I felt to him then. He asked, Can we stay here just a little longer? I said, Sure, and for a moment I wanted to say more.

Later, we’d both say we felt her presence on the edges of our sight wherever we went. But we couldn’t see her when we brought our loads back to the shed. I suggested I start feeding nuts into the hopper while Lee made up some lunch. Though he’s studying at the same uni as me, it does not take much of a conversation to work out that it’s food Lee’s interested in – though he doesn’t seem prepared to admit it to himself.

Lunch was large mugs of black coffee and a salad of chopped fruit, dark leaves, and crumbled macadamias. Something glistened on the top. I made a dressing with some honey, Lee explained. We ate on the deck. By day, we could see out to the ocean over the treetops here, too. Is that an island in the bay? Lee asked. I was distracted by some movement further down the path. Naomi emerged, walking the same way she had before. Like she owned the space.

Hard at work I see, she said. We’ve been at it all morning, Lee replied. I don’t know if he’d missed the sarcasm in her voice, or was just being polite. Nice morning, I said, What have you been up to? She folded her arms, defensive. What is it to you? Then, spotting the few nuts left over in the salad bowl, she asked, Do you like the macadamias?

She led us through the kitchen. Lee had already found the vast tub of nuts between the flour and the rice, but she shook her head and opened up a tall standing freezer. It was packed with Tupperware, each box filled with macadamias. There’s more than that, she said, more than I know how to handle. Use as many as you like. Go nuts.


By the time we reached the beach, it was past mid-afternoon. We walked the length of the bay, turning now and then to watch a group of surfers waiting for the right wave to break. Beyond them, off to one side, we saw the island more clearly. It rose bluntly from the water into a domed curve of green, dark leaves bursting from its crown.

The water was cold at first, but the trick is not to gasp, to bypass the body’s hungry clench. I went further out than normal for my first fresh dive. Showing off, I guess. I turned back to look at Lee. Even through the murky thickness of the ocean water, he had this clarity, this lightness to his face. The first time I’d really noticed him, during a training session at our local pool, he’d had that same look about him: like he was aglow.

Later, as we dried out in the sun, one of the surfers clambered past us up the beach. I propped myself on my elbows. Good surf? She nodded, eyes half-closed. Lee turned on his side. What is that place out there? Donut island, the surfer replied. She paused, planted her board in the sand. ’Cause it’s hollow in the middle. Round one side, there’s a channel through the rock that people kayak to, scoot underneath the rock. Then suddenly, you’re there. A calm pool. An emerald lagoon. Silence, green. Trees and flowers all around.

It was a long moment before she blinked, hoisted up her board, and added, But it’s tapu. You’re not meant to set foot on the land. You can look, but you can’t touch. She clambered away across the dunes. Lee turned to me. Do you think we could swim there? How far is it, really? I wonder, I replied. I was thinking the same thing.

Earlier, after lunch, we’d managed to clear a few trees more. At this rate, now we had improved our tempo, I thought we might manage half the trees by the end of the week. But our new challenge made me feel a little anxious.

Like Lee, I wanted desperately to reach the island. It was all that we could talk about as we walked back. We would need plenty of time if we wanted to be sure that we could make it out there – and I began to worry that half of the orchard might not be enough. Naomi had been insistent on the phone that we should work. I tried to pin her down more precisely over dinner, hoping I could gauge her expectations. But she quickly became impatient and changed the subject.

Later, she grew energetic. Standing up, she pointed out the rows of records on the shelves above the fireplace. Together we walked along pulling sleeves out, collecting a pile that looked interesting. Only later did I wonder about her excitement as I discovered the wide range of jazz. Oh, who’s that? Sun Ra?

From the couches we could listen to the rolling waves of saxophone and still see into the kitchen. Lee made dough with the flour, salt, and honey he’d discovered in the cupboards, and some yeast he had bought before our long walk back.

Naomi wandered over when he started pulverising nuts in a blender, watching as the shards turned into crumbs, then a gritty paste, clumping in a ball before suddenly expanding into smooth, cream-coloured butter. Once he’d switched the blender off, she dipped in a finger and licked it as she walked away. She disappeared upstairs.


After that, she started joining us for breakfast. I was curious about Lee’s reactions: his face, normally alive, went solemn when she talked to him. He’d nod and look down at his toast, or answer, Yes. That’s right. But then I would add a detail – describe someone in our club, or a rival from Australia – and I’d catch his eye and see him break into a grin.

While we cleared the next row of trees, we dissected the story she had told us between mouthfuls of toast spread thick with macadamia butter. This was all before I moved here, she began. A while ago, but don’t ask me for dates or anything. I went to some café friends had recommended. Nothing special, but not bad. When I went up to order another coffee, this old man called out hello to me. I replied without noticing that we weren’t speaking English.

He must have been old. In his seventies at least. He had thin, white chicken-scratch hair, and the wrinkles down his cheeks were so deep you could fit a pencil inside them. But his eyes were young. And he looked so pleased that I had spoken back in the same language that I stopped and asked him how he was. I never get to talk to anybody here, he said. Are you – No, I said. But my father was. Ahh, he said, I remember fathers.

Now, I’ll be honest, the man smelled like piss. And, looking him up and down, I noticed his hands were stained black with ink. I guess he noticed I was staring, ’cause he started telling me about his work. Turned out he delivered flyers into letterboxes. But his scumbag boss – that’s my word, not his – had changed up his route. He had spent the whole night wandering these unfamiliar streets delivering leaflets.

But I get to have a tuna sandwich now, he said. I like tuna best. I nodded: Tuna’s good, I said. I was still a bit distracted. You see, underneath the ink, his hands were super young. Like the hands of a teenager. By comparison, my hands looked middle-aged. And his sleeves were rolled up, so I could see his arms, and they were smooth and hairless. Not a wrinkle, no sagging skin. Like the arms of a boy.

We wound up talking for a while, and I’m not sure the waitress liked that. Probably didn’t help their business having old men smelling of urine hanging out beside the counter. But I didn’t care. One thing he said stuck with me more than anything else. He asked me if I was religious. Did I believe in God, or in some higher power? Well, I hedged my answer. Sometimes it’s not good to rile up old folks. But he said, Don’t worry. I was brought up as a communist. I’ve never believed in God. But the other day, I had an experience.

That’s the best word I can use in English to get at it, but imagine it written down in italics, like it’s not just any old experience. He meant something special. My mother got sick, he said, and I had to work a lot to get her medicine. I used to read to her in bed. I cleaned the house for her. I think about her often, but once you’re dead, you’re dead.

I nodded. That is how it goes. But he looked at me, and I knew whatever he’d say next was the most important part of our conversation. He put two blackened fingers on my wrist like this – and she turned first my hands over, then Lee’s, placing her own fingers on the soft spot between palm and arm, as if taking a pulse – and he said, The other day, while I was getting ready to go to sleep, I heard my mother’s voice. You’re a good boy, she said, you took care of me. And now, he finished, I’m not sure.

Lee was dubious about the way she’d finished off the story. Do you think she really spent several nights out delivering pamphlets with the old guy after that, he asked from the boughs above me, when she hasn’t lifted a finger since we both arrived? I’m not sure, I said. But that feeling she described, of a thin barrier between this world and another, I think I get that. I looked up. Lee was nodding. Yeah. It’s like that moment when you’ve been underwater too long and the feeling in your fingers has begun to go. I sometimes hear the softest music, like there’s another space just beyond the edges of where I can reach.

Exactly, I said. I knew the feeling Lee described; I think every diver does. It’s the place that sirens come from, the allure of the ocean, the suggestion of release. Besides, I added, I liked the way that the old man read to his mother when she was ill. I’d want someone to do that for me. Lee snorted. Don’t be morbid! But I thought I heard a catch. I tried to bring the conversation back to earth. How are you going up there?

That’s it. He jumped down, dropping one last handful of green husks into the wheelbarrow, and took off his top to wipe his brow. I was sweating too. We had found a better rhythm now we understood the process, but somehow it felt like harder work today. I noticed his swimmer’s chest. He’s leaner than me, but that only seems to make the swell of his pecs look sharper. He breathed out a sigh. Chest rose and fell.

A rumble carried down the hill. We turned and saw a quad bike coming along the slope, towing a trailer. I waved, while Lee shaded his eyes. The man slowed the bike and pulled up close to the fence. Standing in the saddle, waving back, he seemed to want us to join him. Lee shrugged, and we walked up the slope.

His name was Peter. He must have been in his fifties, but his thick, tanned skin gave his light blue eyes a brilliant, icy glow. I own the next property along, he said. Do you grow things too? He laughed. It was deep, melodic. No, I raise sheep – a breed I bought from Switzerland – and keep bees around the hills here. He nodded to our heaving barrows. I’m glad they’ve got someone in to clear the nuts. Lee nodded and said, I noticed the signs. Rats? Peter looked grave. I was worried about what would happen to the property in the interim. I’m glad they’ve made a move.

His phrasing sounded odd. What interim did he mean? I wanted to ask him more, pry a little for some details, but he looked away. Then we all caught the flashes of light coming from a distant slope. What were they? A torch? A signal? He grinned. Sorry – time to go. He revved up the bike. Swing past sometime, he called, I’ll trade you honey for some of the dried nuts.

That night, neither of us had the energy to ask Naomi anything about her mother. In the afternoon, we had gone back to the beach, thinking we could try to swim partway to the island. To get a sense of the distance, I had said. But the ocean was against us. Even with long stretches underwater, when the surface noise went silent and it was just murky water and the sight of Lee’s wide breaststroke pull, every time we breached the surface the island still looked just as far away.

On the walk back, I tried to stay optimistic. I’m sure we’ll hit the right weather. Think about reaching that spring! But we could not shake our silence. It filled out the kitchen as Lee made some egg-fried rice, buzzed against the sound of Miles, Dizzy, Bird. It drove Naomi upstairs before she had finished eating. It kept me awake long enough to hear the morepork cry.


Right from my first exploration of the house, I had noticed that the space set out for a laundry room had been cleared of white goods. Gaps for piping and ducts remained, with a faint outline in the paint showing where the sun had bleached the walls. But this didn’t seem so strange, given there was also just a single old-fashioned toilet downstairs, and no shower except the one fixed to the exterior on the far side of the house. As far as we could tell, this would only come out cold, so our mornings always started briskly – a few minutes of furious scrubbing, then relief and clothes warmed by the sun. I knew Lee did not mind this any more than me; we were used to similar rituals after training at our local pool, where the freezing showers were set out like a prison. We were more than comfortable to share our nakedness.

But we had to wonder about her. Neither of us dared to break her taboo and climb the stairs. We both wondered daily whether she had her own shower there. Heated water, too? And it didn’t help that she’d appear with unexpected swiftness, like a cloud across the sun. Lee asked if I had the feeling she was watching us, even when it was clear that she was not around.

The third day of harvesting, she surprised us in the shed as we brought our final load of nuts back down to de-husk. Is that all you’ve done, she asked? Lee shook his head, but otherwise ignored her, instead loading up the hopper. For my part, I opened up the drying drawers at random, gesturing to rows of brown spheres clunking now against each other, now against the wood. She made a noise that could have indicated contempt or satisfaction, and stalked off.

We’d left the subject of the island in the realm of yesterday, working until almost the last light of afternoon. But for some reason, while I dished up the pasta Lee had cooked, I decided I would ask her about donut island. She twirled spaghetti on her fork, looking serious. That island’s no joke, she said. I went there – a while ago. Lee said, I didn’t think you’d been here that long? She just shook her head. It’s empty inside.


In the night I stumbled. I was still half wrapped in dreams, and when the light switch in the bathroom didn’t light the room it threw me off course. In the morning, Lee noticed the bruising on my cheek. I shivered when he brushed it with his thumb, the flicker of pad against the surface of my face.

I thought it was just the bulb, but when we tried the toaster and the record player neither would respond. We could get the stovetop going – the gas still worked at least – but none of the lights or electronics seemed to work. I left Lee to take care of coffee while I tried to find a fuse box. I did not have any luck. Lee pointed his chin upstairs. I called out Naomi’s name, but there was no response.

We still half-expected her to join us on the deck. The cat was back, belly open to the sky. Lee scratched him while I finished off my coffee and, when she still didn’t show, began to drink hers as well. In the shed, we found that the de-husker wasn’t working either. No point harvesting until the power’s sorted, Lee said. I think he had noticed the foul smell coming from the deep standing freezers in the corner, but neither of us made a move to look inside.

What about— I started asking, once we’d stepped outside. Lee looked serious. I second-guessed myself. Then I said it anyway. What about we try swimming to the island again? Lee did not speak. Then he smiled.

I suggested that we take a different route, once we’d finished the long slog down the trainlines to the station. Hoisting bags and towels over our shoulders, we plunged into the long grass and made for the bluff. In the sunlight, his face was alight, ringed with a corona, and I thought that maybe I could hold this moment, somehow make everything stop.

As we’d left the property (note addressed to Naomi sitting on the table), we had spotted Peter in the distance, on his bike again. He had waved one paw-like hand at us in a wide arc. Now, climbing up the bluff, I started wondering again if he’d wanted to talk. Perhaps he knew what was happening with the power? But that was something Naomi could figure out.

Lee’s eyesight was perfect and I trusted him to gauge the distance to the island better than me. But even I could tell, once we’d pushed our way past thick pohutakawa branches, that the island was much further out than we had thought from on the beach. Up high, and at this angle, we could make out the dark gap in the rocky ring.

I met Lee’s eye and knew he was imagining the same deep breath as me – the long, silent swim along the rocky channel, and the moment when our heartbeats would pulse inside our throats, when we could wait no longer and would breach the surface in a secret place all of our own.

Lee nudged me in the ribs. There was Naomi on the beach. Around her it was busy: a family walked a dog; several surfers stood and watched the ocean for a sign of life. But it was impossible to miss her ponytail and severe fringe, or the way she stood with her arms akimbo, challenging the world. We scrambled down the slope, thinking we’d surprise her. By the time we cleared the scrub, though, she had disappeared.

According to Lee, the tide would be lowest an hour or so from then. I suggested we grab coffee; normally we would avoid caffeine so close to a dive. But today was not about escaping to a space where the rhythm of our hearts was as steady as the ocean. We would need as much energy as we could harness if we wanted to make it out to the island this time.

We heard a rap on the window of the old café. Peter waved and came inside. With him was a quiet woman dressed in silk trousers and shirt. I was hoping to catch you, Peter said. This is Diana, she’s the estate agent for the family. She’s been trying to tie down a buyer for the property. Diana interrupted: The thing is, she said, No one in the family knew that there were people staying on the property.

Lee looked pale. I said, I’m sorry, I think there must have been a lapse in communication. My sister put us in contact. She knows the owner. But we’ve only dealt with Naomi.

The woman looked puzzled, Peter concerned. The owner died three months ago. I’ve been working with his family, but none of them are called Naomi. Peter blinked, and said, I’m sure they’re not squatters. What kind of squatters harvest trees? Unless, and he looked meaningfully at our bags. Lee scowled and unzipped them both. Towels, sandwiches, and a change of clothes. No black market nuts.

Look, I said, she’s been staying upstairs the whole time, but we saw her maybe twenty minutes ago, just standing on the beach. She must have gone back to the house. Either way, check her room. Talk to her. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation for it all. Diana said, Hmm. Well. Peter said, Yes, let’s go have a look. He fixed us with glacial eyes. Don’t go anywhere.


On the beach, I closed my eyes against the sun. Somewhere in my bag were bus tickets back to the city, a pair of headphones we would share, heads resting against one another as we journeyed home, rough, salt-tufted hair matting with kind. Somewhere close by was a palm waiting for my grip. Lee murmured, It would have been an experience.



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