Copyright© Katzmarek 2005
Laurie had one last look over the old place. If they used that much Native timber in a house these days, he thought, they'd need special legislation in Parliament. But in those days the forest came down to the river. Stands of tall Totara and Beech trees that hummed and twittered with wildlife.
His ancestors had cleared the land with the axe and two-man hand saws. There used to be a sawmill by the river in those days. At first they had a waterwheel then a steam engine to drive the bandsaws and rollers. It closed sometime in the 1920s when all the timber ran out.
His Grandfather had built the old house by hand in the early 20th century. It stood through fire, flood and the occasional earthquake. It had been extended, modified and generally buggered around with but the front was original. The slash windows were narrow and retangular and now looked incongruous alongside the later additions.
Laurie watched the demo people set up their gear. Much of the timber, of course, would be salvaged and sold off at a grossly inflated price. That's the way it is, he thought, everyone making a fortune out of the hard manual work of folks long dead. The old farm was going to be sub-divided into 30 acre blocks and sold off to city folks at half a million bucks apiece. That means the developers stood to walk away with around 8 million, he figured, net!
Still, as the sole surviving family member he'd done alright out of the deal. The family farm had been freehold for years so he didn't have to share the 6 million sale price with any financial institution. What with his own farm, worth about 4 million in today's market, he had more money than he knew what to do with.
"See ya, Laurie," one of the demo people waved as Laurie headed back to his brand new Isuzu Bighorn. He nodded at the man before climbing in. Despite himself, his eyes watered as he drove down the familiar driveway to the main road.
"A bastard," he told his old dog, "but that's the way it is, I suppose. I hope they don't pollute the creek." Then he remembered the tons of Superphosphate, Urea, Lime, weedkillers and sheepdip that must have washed down that river over the years and smiled.
He drove on into town to the pub. Te Kiako had been a busy port once, but that had been a great many years ago. Flax and timber used to come down the river to be loaded onto ships bound for Australia and the World. There was no-more timber and the flax swamps had been drained for farmland. The Railway had finally killed the port in the 1890s. Now there was just a few commercial fishing boats and a ramp for the weekend sailors.
The town reflected its disuse by all the old derelict buildings, stone chimneys in fields from long demolished houses and the run-down community hall. It was just a pub, a farm supply store and Mr Lee's Superette, where one of his sons followed the customers around the shop lest one slipped a bottle of Worcester Sauce under their woollen jumper. Laurie pulled into the pub carpark and went in the back door.
"Hey, Laurie!" one of the old regulars called, "been up to the old place? Bring a bit of life into town, eh? All them city folks..." Foot propped on a stool, John Hargood sounded unconvinced. "Ernies goin' to turn the place into one of them cocktail bars," he continued, "gettin' some sheilas to serve in short skirts..."
"That'll be the day," grumbled Ernie from the bar, "me missus'll want cameras behind the bar to keep an eye on me. If those folks want a beer they have to take the place as they find it," he announced.
"They won't, not with your grizzly mug scouring at them."
"Fuck off if you don't like it," Ernie whipped back.
Laurie collected a handle of Tui from the bar and sat down at John's table. He silently watched the pool players for a while. New people in town will spell the end of all this, he thought, and good riddance.
He didn't really like pubs anyway, but there was nothing else to do during the slow part of the year. He was tired of the predictable banter, the faded, beer-soaked carpet, the scuffed woodwork with a thousand cigarette scars. Most of all he was tired of the stale, blokey atmosphere stuck in some 1950s timewarp. He almost expected 6pm closing and men carrying jugs of beer out to the carpark for a final guzzle before staggering into their '47 Chevys. It all reeked of stifling decay.
"So how are you and this Russian sheila?" John asked. His face betrayed smug skepticism.
"Good," Laurie answered. He'd learned not to say too much.
"Bloody mug!" John told him, "y'know, all them websites are ripoffs... owned by the Mafia... true!" He drained his glass and looked at Laurie questioningly.
"Another handle for John," Laurie called across the bar to Ernie.
"Them sheilas are not real... models, all of them. They hook you in, see and them Mafia agents ask you for money or get your credit card number. I read all about it."
"Yeah. You get an Email asking you to send money for the airfare. When you do you never see the sheila nor the money again... I read about it."
"Yeah. What's her name?"
"Made up... She ain't real... just some model... you'll see!"
"She's coming in three weeks," Laurie told him absently.
"Lay you 20 ewes she won't show?" he challenged.
"You're on! Those fat Romneys, not that shagged out old mutton you keep in the back paddock."
"Done," John said scratching his jaw. Those ewes were worth a fair bit of money.
Laurie left shortly after a trio of deerstalkers crashed boisterously through the door. Blood soaked their backs where they'd carried the meat out of the bush. They began to regale the regulars about the one that got away and the 16 pointer they'd shot over the back of the ridge. Laurie wasn't in the mood for noise and bragging. At least it stalled John's teasing over his Internet lady.
She was 33 with a 15 year old son called Igor. She lived in Moscow, she'd told him, in a shabby, one room apartment in the suburb of Vladimir. She'd described acres of run-down Soviet-era apartment blocks where the elevators had long-since broken down and never repaired. She lived with her Mother and her son, sleeping in divan beds and collapsible stretchers. The State paid a meagre pension, she'd explained, which she supplemented by working part-time in a Kindergarten.
The 'Russian Connexion' website had featured a beautiful slim woman with dark eyes and an alluring smile. The not-quite professional photograph was carefully posed, the woman finely made-up with dark auburn hair cascading down to her shoulders. She'd been No .3 on his list of possibles and the only one who'd replied with any enthusiasm. Most of the woman, it seemed, wanted to go to America.
He'd sent her money to buy a computer so they could Email each other. The Agency charged a hefty fee to use their service and it seemed a logical thing to do. There had been more money over the past year. Little things for the household, a modern TV, microwave and some private English tuition for Igor. Eventually it had cost him over 40 grand.
It had crossed his mind that he was being suckered, that Svetlana and Igor were not real and his money was going into some mobster's pocket. If so, it was a very skillful con for it had him convinced.
'WHERE IS NEW ZEALAND?' she'd Emailed him.
'SOUTH PACIFIC, 2000 KILOMETRES FROM AUSTRALIA, ' he'd replied.
'IS IT HOT THERE? DO YOU HAVE SNOW?'
'WARM SUMMERS, MILD WINTERS, SOME SNOW BUT ONLY IN THE HIGH COUNTRY AND IN THE VERY SOUTH.'
'DO YOU LIVE IN A BIG HOUSE? DO YOU HAVE A CAR?'
'FIVE BEDROOMS, CONSERVATORY, SWIMMING POOL, CAR, SUV, 2 QUAD BIKES AND A TRACTOR.'
'YOU LIVE BY YOURSELF?'
'JUST ME AND THE DOGS.'
'CAN I HAVE A DOG?'
'DOG, PET LAMB, A CALF, WHATEVER YOU LIKE.'
Igor wrote the Emails because his Mother had little English. Laurie had taken some Russian lessons by correspondence but he wasn't a natural with languages. He found the language daunting and the Cyrillic alphabet impossible.
It occurred to him that what he was describing to Svetlana was nothing short of Paradise. Green fields and rolling hills, empty beachs with only the seabirds for company must seem like a fantasy. He knew he was embroidering the truth a little but how much would one need to exaggerate to someone in Svetlana's circumstances?
Laurie had been married but it hadn't gone the distance. She'd been a neighbour whom he'd known since school. In three years it had been all over and she'd gone to Australia to 'find herself.' Laurie hung on for another two years before finally admitting she was never coming back. Two years ago she'd sent him a letter asking for a dissolution. It was the one and only communication he'd had with her since their separation.
Judith had looked at the rest of her life and saw isolation, Laurie supposed. She hankered after the bright lights and opportunity, Night Clubs, boutiques, coffee bars and all that only the city could provide. She'd wanted to go to University and do a Degree before time and children made it too difficult. He understood how she felt, but cities made him claustrophobic. He liked that you could count the cars going past on one hand and wake up to the squawking of the Starlings and Minahs.
His farm was a good hour out of town down unsealed roads. The house sat on rising ground just below a Pine plantation. He'd planted mature Kowhais and other Native trees to provide shade in summer and to encourage the birds. At the side of the house was a Sheoak where he and Judith had made love one Summer's afternoon. He missed that. Imaginative she was, game for anything.
A vivid picture presented itself in his mind. Judith with her wobbling bare breasts and impish grin dragging him by the hand. He flicked the autocue to Soundgarden, dark and reflective music that radiated his moods back in crystal clarity.
"Eat me, lick me!" Would Svetlana beg him to go down on her? Such eyes belie a passionate nature, he concluded. 'Yes, she'd appreciate his tongue. He'd been well-trained by Judith.'
"Bite them, suck them!" What were Svetlana's breasts like? Did she have sensitive nipples like Judith? Svetlana had never sent any photos of herself naked and he'd been too shy to ask. Even after he'd sent the money for her to buy a Sony Digicam her pictures were of the Moscow winter and Igor and Babushka walking in the snow. Her photos had shown her looking ominously older, suggesting that her original picture had been doctored.
He still couldn't imagine what her body looked like. A photo of her in a woollen sweater was his favourite, smiling, arms- spread, displaying the Norsewear Aran-knit he'd sent her one Christmas. He saw a nice swell to her chest that the wool couldn't conceal. Her face had a wide grin. He thought her lips sensuous and full of promise. Did she do blow-jobs? Would her mouth work magic on him as Judith's had? Was he expecting to much?
Most of all he missed the company, someone with whom he could share the day. True, Judith was from a farming background so understood what he was talking about. Svetlana, who struggled with English and had never known a life like this, how could she possibly fit in? The negatives seemd to line up the positives against a brick wall and dispatch them with a volley.
'Moscow to Frankfurt, ' he thought, 'Frankfurt, London, Hong Kong then Auckland. Plenty of opportunity for her to change her mind and get lost in the wealth of the West. A tidy sum in the Bank, too, ' he mused, 'all care of his Father's estate. He's going to look pretty stupid in front of dickheads like John Hargood.'
"Told you!" he heard them say, 'Arseholes!'
As he drove up his long driveway, the Autumn evening was already whispering a Winter chill. The breeze from the mountains tickled his cheeks and the tip of his nose. It drove him indoors and towards the wood stove.
'You've got mail!' his computer told him. 'sschapakinov at da dot ru.' It was Svetlana/Igor.
'DEAR LAURENCE, ' it read, 'I HAVE THE TICKETS UPLIFTED. YOU MEET US, PLEASE? I SEND YOU TIME OF ARRIVAL. IS IT FAR? SVETLANA, '
'ABOUT 18,000 KILOMETRES, I WILL MEET YOU IN AUCKLAND. LAURIE, ' he typed back.
There was an attachment with a jpeg of her and Igor proudly holding their airline tickets and passports. Laurie had no doubt John Hargood was the one going to look stupid. He clicked on his favourite photo once again. The one with her in the sweater smiling. He took that image with him to bed.
Three weeks later he awoke in the morning as usual at 5am. As usual he went out into the chill morning to help bring the herd in for milking. He fired up the Kawasaki Workhorse and set off across the paddocks. Already the hands had gathered the herd together and got them moving towards the gate. Laurie took point down the road lest one of the milk tankers should come barreling along. The big Volvo units took a lot of stopping.
The yapping of the Huntaways punctuated the still morning as the dogs harried the cows into some sort of order. Udders heavy, the herd knew the way but were apt to take time out to munch at the grass on the roadside.
"Hey Laurie," Malcolm, his leading hand called, "why don't you bugger off. We don't need you. Go and meet that sheila of yours."
"Just thought I'd help," he replied, "if I leave after breakfast I can be there just after lunch, book into a motel and be at the airport by three."
"Yeah, but you don't know Auckland traffic, mate. Could be stuck on the Great South Road for an hour."
"Yeah? S'pose," he considered.
"Yeah, g'wan, fuckoff."
"I guess so. Sure you don't need a hand?"
"With what? Your fuckin' useless anyway, all-horny, dreamin' of that sheila."
"Yeah, give her one for us, mate!"
"I will," Laurie smiled as he made his way back to the house.
Laurie had bought a brand new Maxima Wagon. Big enough, he figured, for his new family. He pointed it North for the 6 hour journey to Auckland. He found a Motel close to the airport and arrived at the terminal building early.
To while away the time, he fetched up in the bar. It had a TV screen announcing arrivals and departures and he sat fascinated as it scrolled on and on.
'BA779 HK to AK (delayed) ETA TBA, ' the column read. 'OK, ' he thought to himself, 'it's held up somewhere.' He ordered a whisky from the indifferent waiter and tried to read the newspaper. He was in a state of controlled panic, however, and the newsprint staring back at him was incomprehensible.
'BA779 HK to AK (delayed) ETA 1730.' 'That's something, ' he thought, '2 hour's late but still on its way.'
Eventually the British Airways Airbus landed and seemed to Laurie to take ages to dock with the Terminal. It was another half an hour before the first of the tired passengers had maneuvred through Immigration and Customs.
All was a pandemonium of hoots and hollers, cries and tears of joy. Laurie tried to control his panic amid the throngs of people. More humanity, he thought, than at a big Provincial Rugby game. He hated it but tried to stay focussed on the double doors.
The passengers egressing from the arrival hall began to thin out. It was now nearly an hour after the Jumbo landed and thoughts that Svetlana was not coming began to intrude on Laurie's mind.
His anxiety was increasing, he wanted to kick something, wanted to be out of this madhouse and back on his farm. The crowd began to disperse leaving him with a feeling of vulnerabiity. He imagined the airport staff watching him and thinking, 'what a mug!'
Taking one last look at the double doors before leaving he saw a woman and a boy standing all alone. She was slim with dark auburn hair tied into a ponytail. Her black dress was smoothed tight to her hips and fell down to her ankles. She clutched a leather purse protectively while her other arm was wrapped around the waist of the tall, skinny youth. Their faces had a startled, anxious expression. Their eyes swept quickly around them liked scared rabbits.
Laurie felt the air expel from his lungs in one audible rush. He felt a warm glow wash over his face. He broke into a wide smile and called to them.
"Svetlana! Igor! Here!"
"Laurence!" she cried. Her voice was heavily accented, deep, and stumbling over the English consonants. They looked like a pair of shipwrecked sailors about to be rescued. Relief, joy, excitement replaced the terrified expressions. "Laurence," she repeated as he rushed up to the pair. After a brief hesitant moment, Svetlana planted a brief kiss on Laurie's cheek. His hands held her shoulders and tingled with the much-anticipated contact. "I am happy to see you," she said, carefully and deliberately. The 'h' was guttural and the 'a' extended so the word 'happy' sounded like 'hcharpy.'
"Me too," Laurie told them, "did you have a good journey?" he asked lamely. Svetlana looked at Igor who repeated the question in Russian.
"Yes... fine... da!" she answered.
"Da... good," repeated Laurie. Through the joy he began to think that language was going to be a big hurdle.
He guided them to the baggage claim. Igor kept up a commentary in Russian, explaining to his Mother what the signs meant. The boy asked Laurie questions in polite and too-formal English. He wondered how a few months in New Zealand will affect that speech. A nation, so we're told, of vowel stranglers and word butchers.
Finally emerging into the concrete paddock of a car park, Svetlana reached into her purse and extracted a packet of B and H. She put a cigarette to her lips and tried to light it from brass Zippo. Her hands shook with fatigue and stress and it was some moments before she could take a long drag of blue smoke.
Laurie was startled. It never occured to him to ask if she was a smoker. It had been a good many years since he'd given up his rollies and he was not sure how he would cope with the smoke. He watched her breathe a cloud of smoke for a second before making up his mind. On impulse he asked, "may I?" and indicated the gold packet. She passed over a cigarette with a smile followed by the lighter. Laurie pushed back the thought that he was taking a step back into degradation. The nicotine rush made him tremble before his mind began to float in a satisfying burst of Pheromones. Smiling, the group began to search out the Maxima.
Svetlana instinctively stood by the driver's door. Laurie opened it and she was startled to find the steering wheel on the right. Abashed, she went around the vehicle to the passenger's side. Haltingly, she tried to explain that they drive on the left in Russia. Igor translated and helped her Mother with her missing nouns. In all the comment took a good 3 minutes before all were satisfied they understood. Language was going to be a problem, thought Laurie.
Svetlana wore a powerful scent that suffused the Nissan with the smell of roses. Laurie suspected he'd paid for the perfume. He noted she was wearing the jade earings he'd sent her for her birthday. Similarly the necklace he recognised as the gold item with pearl pendant that he'd sent her for Christmas. Igor sported a heavy wristwatch with a gold band, his birthday present, and began playing a Gameboy, again, a present from Laurie.
They rode in silence through the half-hour journey to the Motel. Jet-lag was beginning to kick in, Laurie noted. The pair were riding on Adrenalin.
They refused dinner, having eaten on the plane. However Laurie realised he was starving. He settled them into the Motel room then went in search of some takeaways.
When he returned he found them watching satelite TV, a documentary on African termites. He put the box of chips on the table and nodded to Igor's questioning look. The youth scoffed most of them as well as Laurie's Pepsi. Svetlana looked disapproving but did not intervene.
The fatigue of the day finally caught up with Laurie and he left the pair to the TV and got into the double bed. In the morning he found Mother and son sound asleep in the single bed, Animal Planet still rotating its documentaries on the big TV.
When the pair woke around mid-morning, Laurie was more than ready to pack up and leave the city. They munched through a brunch to a doco on Gorillas before packing their bags into the Wagon. Svetlana and Igor dozed most of the way South, waking up again half-an-hour out of Te Kiako.
The trip out to Laurie's farm was dusty. Svetlana was alarmed at the narrowness of the road, the sheer drop on one side and the deep drainage ditch on the other. Laurie drove with one hand on the wheel with his elbow out the open window. To Svetlana he was piloting the vehicle at breakneck speed around blind corners and down dizzying grades.
"You can see the dust from the trucks miles away," he explained to Igor. "The milk tankers go like the clappers but they're all good drivers and know what they're doing." When Igor translated for his Mother, she looked unconvinced and stared out the window for the oncoming behemoths.
When they arrived at the farm, Laurie saw that Svetlana had been traumatised by the ride. "You'll get used to it," he told her, "d'you drive?" She shook her head in terror.
By dinner she had relaxed, calmed by the peaceful atmosphere and the casual reassurance of Laurie. Back in his own environment, he was calm and attentative. He took the pair for a ride around the property in the Bighorn, showed her the milking shed, stockyards and the Pine plantation. He persuaded her to pat a cow and she chatted to it in Russian. Laurie was pleased to see she wasn't daunted by the size of the animal, despite never having been that close to stock in her life. Igor snapped photos of them all with his Sony Digicam. She watched with interest the hands bringing the herd in for evening milking, embarrassed a little by the curious stares of the men.
"How'd ya like the place," one asked her cheerily, "bit different from Russia, eh?" His lazy drawl defeated even Igor's comprehension. Laurie translated for Igor who translated for his Mother.
"Good!" she told the farmhand.
Returning to the house, Laurie fixed them dinner while they checked out the TV. The pair ate their steaks to a documentary on Lemurs.
Laurie was unsure about sleeping arrangements. He would have like to move Svetlana into his bed straight away, but instead showed her a spare room. He couldn't broach the subject with her son translating, it would be far too embarrassing. She seemed happy with the arrangement so he decided to let things take their course. Igor was excited that he could have a room all to himself. Laurie offered him a TV and patched it through to the satelite topbox. He told him he'd get another box so he could watch whatever he liked.
While Igor happily organised his room, Laurie had an opportunity of having Svetlana all to himself. The TV still droned on and he began to resent the distraction. Perhaps, he thought, she was diverting into the Television as a way of avoiding the communication problem. Laurie, though, was determined to bridge the gap. He'd... they'd, come too far to fail over language.
"Television... in English... television," he pointed.
"It's same in Russian," she replied smiling.
"I'm happy you're here... at last," he told her slowly.
"Me also," she replied.
She sat in Laurie's Lazyboy where he sometimes spent the night having fallen asleep listening to Kate Bush. He wished they could sit together on the sofa but he wasn't confident about asking her. These things, he decided, can't be rushed.
"You like dinner?" he asked.
"Dinner, yes, very good. No much meat in Russia."
"What did you eat there?"