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Short story: Sharks of Porangahau, by Elizabeth Morton

"That summer of shark-attacks, they never found a missing person": a short story by Elizabeth Morton

It was a summer of shark attacks. Cartilage washed up on the shoreline. Some teenagers found a foot among the tuatua beds. It made the Dominion-Post, which was okay because nobody ever talks about Porangahau, except to say the place name of a small local hill - Taumatawhakatangi­hangakoauauotamatea­turipukakapikimaunga­horonukupokaiwhen­uakitanatahu, which they don’t actually say but copy-and-paste into emails and Facebook newsfeeds. The thing about Porangahau is, it’s not great when you want a cheeseburger and a casual Tinder date. It’s the kind of place you’re either running to, or running from. A sort of small town of momentarily displaced people.

That is not to say I’m some sort of trifling fugitive. I found this place before the freedom campers, before Mister Whippy hee-hawed through the camping grounds, before the nine-hole golf course was chucked in to attract more salubrious visitors. I am the deadbeat apparition who haunts the buffalo grass. A sort of grudging mascot for those who’ve missed the boat. Hey Gus, they’ll yelp from the innards of their SUVs. How’s the fish, Gus? I am the postcard-eccentric that people will send their children, so as to gently nudge them away from bad friends and wrong paths. Gus, somebody will say, and somebody else will roll their eyes.

I like it here. Don’t get me wrong. I have my little permanent cabin at the Beach Holiday Motor-home. There’s a dog here, called Wolf, who’ll do cartwheels for mackerel-ends. Each Summer, though, the magic of things weakens slightly but demonstrably. Kids come and go. Adults come and go. Each Summer hacks a notch into the shrinking belt-strap. Holidaymakers annually reconvene in the dunes, but with a little less love, a little more damage, a couple more crow’s feet at the edges of things. They will return every time, doggedly stalking a nostalgia which will ultimately disappoint. I am their constant. Gus! they will say, like I’m the last thing in the world.

I want to tell you, I don’t mind it a bit. Somebody has to take the rap for optimism’s sour takings. I am what kids remember when they realise infanthood is a parentally constructed sham. I’m the placeholder for Santa Claus, the aftertaste of a lie so big it repeats on you. Gus! they will say, and it will be wrapped in the wonder that some detail of youth is sustained.

It was a summer of shark attacks. When the teenagers found the foot, I started writing anatomical haiku on the inside of my wardrobe. When the Kaumatua hauled a hand out from the kelp, I wrote an epic poem, about a triple-amputee, for Landfall. They found a jawbone under a boogie-board, and I made a lawn-sculpture from driftwood the shape of a skull. Gus! somebody would say. If I had a ten cent piece for each time some rooster called my name, I’d be off the invalid’s benefit and out riding the ankle-busters on my Malibu. Gus! How’s the fish, Gus? they might say, but I would be painting a limerick on the dunny door, or listening to Talk-back Radio while water-blasting the pavers.

They say pissing in the seawater attracts more sharks than blood does. I don’t know about that. What I can say is that summer was the best year yet for gurnard. I’d go kite-fishing off Mussel Rock, with squid bait and sprats, and bring back a feed of fish which I’d pan-fry in butter. I’m kind of famous round here for my cabin which reeks of fishmeat and ciggies. People know me by the smell of things. It’s how folks remember this place. More than the sunrises, the silhouettes of swamp birds, the prickleweed, the games of tag – it’s olfaction that greets them full-frontal and thrusts them back in time. The sweet septic smells. The spicy scent of bracken and gorse, sour petrichor rising from the asphalt. That kind of thing.

A couple of city pigs drove down from Hastings, when the first limb was found. They went from door to door, speaking into Dictaphones. I threw a couple of ginger-nuts into a saucer, made them some gumboot tea. Gus, they said. Do you know your sharks?

I know a couple of lawyers, I replied. The woman cop coughed into her tea.

The summer of shark attacks I’d seen a barrister twice. The first time, I’d made a public nuisance of myself. I’d played from the Dead Kennedys on my twelve string, outside the Country Club. Gus! some folks would say, and throw a twenty-cent into my colander. Gus! they’d say, play us something from Crowded House. But I was earnestly doing "Too Drunk to Fuck" in falsetto. When they found the foot in the tuatua beds, I took it back a notch. I picked-out some Dave Dobbyn with a bottle top, but the gesture was a little late.

The second time, I was negotiating the placement of a garden gnome on my bit of dirt. The Beach Holiday Motor Home wouldn’t allow a one-foot, bulbous but benign, leprechaun to straddle the boundary between my spot and the powered tent site. Gus! they’d said, Come on Gus! they’d said. Be a sport! But I engaged a shark from Napier. Mike, short for Michelangelo, whose side project was Art Deco brooches. He sold me a rhinestone pin, with Dionysus wolfing down dolmades. I gave up my gnome when he told me the case wouldn’t float, and he’d hoovered a thousand buckaroos.

That summer of shark attacks, they never found a missing person.  There were these Norwegian tourists, who’d been trekking the coast, from Waimarama, south. They’d come from Oslo, where they’d been caught up in the terrorist attacks. They were chiselling periwinkles from the rocks on their way down. It was a kind of unabashed hustling, environmental larceny, which was okay because they were Norwegian and not Chinese. At first, the Dominion-Post said they’d been swept out to sea by a rogue wave. But they wound up inland at Dannevirke, where a Detective Sergeant found them using the public drinking fountain to wash their undergarments. It was all a to-do. Anyway, the arms and feet and knuckles and teeth that appeared upon the shoreline couldn’t find a home.

When the city pigs swooped by, I served them my best bone-china. There were two of them – a Topp Twin lookalike, but with enamel fingernails that extended beyond bedroom practicality, and a man with sweat patches and gelled hair. The Topp Twin muttered into her Dictaphone. Something about Mental Health Acts and dogfish. Gus! said the man. Carol and I were wondering what you know about sharks? I watched him pick at a piece of food stuck to the underside of his cup. Any theories on where the victims came from, Gus? I swallowed at my own premeditated bad taste. Fin-land, I said. Like fin, like shark fin. Fin-land.  The Topp Twin tapped a fingernail against her saucer, and looked at me with a sort of pitiful reproach. Like to try that again? she said, raising an overgrown eyebrow. She mustn’t pluck. I wondered whether she shaved her legs. Would she ever use nail scissors to trim her pubic hair. God knows, she spends enough on her nails. 

I wouldn’t know, I conceded.

People come and go and sometimes people disappear. Porangahau is a ghost settlement, off-peak. It’s stripped down to its bones, with a hardcore residue population, acting out Darwinian natural-selection. We are the cockroaches that Rentokil overlooked. I like to think I am Blattodea Rex, the sovereign cockroach, the one the backpackers gingerly step around, at once awed and appalled. I’m a sort of repudiated blue-blood. Not that they see it that way. I’m their strange and slightly dim extra. Gus! they say. How’s this El Niño, eh? Reckon this High is gonna budge? As though I am a human weathervane, after all. My existential malaise captured by a series of tight isobars.

All summer they continued to find bits in the tide – wedges of person, washed ashore with the Cola bottles and micro-beads. Porangahau made the map. People zoomed in on Google Streetview, moseying past the dairy and school grounds. Decile four. There were news reports and then fake-news reports. The Onion ran a page linking Bernie Sanders’ campaign to increased fish populations in the Pacific Ocean. There were low-budget mockumentaries. Amputee mannequins were shuttled down from Hastings, and erected as municipal sculptures. The vibe in the town was sickly but commercially viable. People trudged around with yellowed auras and rusted chakras. I mean it – I’m not even on the laughing-grass. Nobody swam.

There is no easy way to put this. Those uncommitted limbs were the making of this town. When the city pigs came to town, knocking down doors and eating ginger-nuts, I think everyone must have risen to the occasion. People served their best Crown Lynn. People invested in Tim Tams and Eccles cake. It was all very nice. Families assembled blow-up paddling pools in their front yards. They say Porangahau hit its highest temperature on record. Adults walked around feverishly, tugged at by children sucking ice-lollies. Nobody made much sense, but everybody was talking. Words were cast out, and boomeranged back in slightly different shapes.

The Topp Twin and her colleague sniffed around the town, until they began to fit right in. She braided her short hair. He wore a Billabong shirt. It was a sort of conspicuous undercover routine. Locals shouted them rounds at the pub, played beer-pong with them in their garages. The Topp Twin cut her fingernails, like it was some kind of requisite for admission. They still asked pig-questions. Gus! said the policewoman over a jug. Where were you on 3 November, between the hours of 4 and 6pm? And I bought another round.

The summer came and went like a bad smell. Holidaymakers began to disassemble the signs of their glamping. SUVs bucked over the dirt road, North. We cockroaches returned to our singular ways. We stood at our stovetops, or sat at our cabin doors, watching the days shrink smaller and smaller. And one day the bodies stopped arriving. In a spell of disenchantment, we said nothing and moved on.

I should tell you Landfall rejected my epic poem about the triple-amputee. I received a form from my mailbox with sorry and at this time and not right for us and luck in placing it elsewhere. That night I drove up to Taumatawhakatangi­hangakoauauotamatea­turipukakapikimaunga­horonukupokaiwhen­uakitanatahu, with a sixpack of beer on my dashboard. I squinted my eyes at the stars, until they slipped into the hill. I held the moon between my thumb and index finger. The thing about this world – it’s the kind of place you’re either running from or running to. On 3 November they’d said she looked like a sea-nymph, with sand in her ears. Her Fleetwood Mac T-shirt. Her Micky Mouse watch. Victim Support knocked at my door with her hairpin and a thermos of tea. They reckon she’d jumped from Mussel Rock.

Gus! said the city pig. Sorry and at this time and sorry, so sorry. All that summer I was a shark. What am I now? I am Gus.

I am a placeholder for guilt.

Next week's short story is by Colleen Maria Lenahan.
 

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