A River Then a Road


In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta presents the regional winners of the 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Pip Robertson’s story is the winning entry from the Pacific.

 

Alexis spotted their dad across the train station car park and texted their mum. She was allowed a phone once a month, just for these visits.

‘Ready?’ Alexis said. She took Ben’s hand and they ran, hunched over in the rain, dodging puddles to the car.

‘I want the blue side!’ Ben said. Like always, he insisted on sitting by the mismatched door.

Rain pummelled the roof.

‘You look like drowned rats,’ their dad said.

‘Do we have to stay in a motel tonight?’ Ben asked.

‘Yeah, bit wet for camping.’

They waited to turn out of the car park, their dad tapping his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the indicator tick.

‘So, what’s new?’

‘Not much,’ said Alexis. She had been invited to Juliet’s birthday party, a girl at the centre of a friendship group Alexis had been on the periphery of all year. She had begged her mum to let her go to the party instead, but her mum hadn’t wavered. It was their dad’s weekend. That was the rule. There’ll be other invites, she had said, not understanding that turning down an invitation left Alexis in a worse position than not being invited at all.

‘I lost another tooth,’ Ben said, baring his teeth and squishing his tongue in the canine gap.

‘Awesome, awesome,’ their dad said, but he wasn’t really listening. He turned the radio on, then off, then on again. He was always nervous at the start.

 

 

Their dad had been living with Mick, his old school friend, for two years. For the first year, Alexis and Ben visited their dad there, sleeping in a spare room with creaky beds. Mick had inherited the house from his grandparents and hadn’t changed the furniture. He went to church on Sundays, and seemed like an old person even though he was the same age as their dad. Once Alexis overheard Mick on the phone talking about their dad, saying he was while he battled some demons and found his feet, and she had imagined him in a cartoonish tumble of monsters and lightsabers.

The last time they slept there, Alexis had been in the shower when Mick had come in and stared at her in the mirror while he brushed his teeth. The shower door was glass, and if she tried to cover herself it would have been like accusing him, so she stood still with the water running over her, aware of the scribble of new dark hairs between her legs. When Mick had finished brushing, he wiped his mouth with a wet hand and held a finger to his lips, shh. As soon as he left she had turned off the water and grabbed her towel. Outside the bathroom were raised voices.

‘You alright, Lexi?’ her dad had called through the door.

‘Yep!’ she had yelled back, pulling on her clothes in a rush.

The rest of that day her dad had kept asking her if she was okay, and she kept saying she was fine. Later, he said, ‘This morning in the bathroom, Mick just wasn’t thinking. It won’t happen again. No need to say anything to your mum, eh?’

Alexis didn’t need convincing. She hoped no one ever mentioned it again.

They didn’t stay at Mick’s after that. In bad weather they went to a motel. In good weather they went camping, meaning they slept in the station wagon with the seats down flat, in a car park at a forest or beach. Their dad had a little gas stove for instant noodles, and at the supermarket he let them get whatever else they wanted – sweets and chips and sugary drinks, saying that he bet their mum never let them eat that stuff.

It was true, she didn’t, but Alexis shrugged and said sometimes.

On the camping weekends, even Ben knew better than to tell their mum exactly where they had slept and what they had eaten. On the train home Alexis brushed their hair and made Ben copy her, rubbing toothpaste on his teeth. For Ben the camping was all still fun, with the boundless choice in the supermarket, not washing, peeing against a tree and sleeping in his clothes. Alexis increasingly dreaded the awkwardness of having nowhere private to get changed, how the car filled up with the smell of their breath, the corrosive feeling in her mouth after all the sugar and salt.

 

 

‘You two are like peas in a pod,’ the motel receptionist said, nodding at Ben and their dad as she handed over the key. It was true – the crooked smile, the curls, but also the way their clothes seemed too big. Their dad was tall, but skinny in a way that looked like he wasn’t done growing. Once Ben asked their mum what a teenager was. She explained it was someone not quite a child anymore but not yet a proper adult.

‘Like Dad?’ Ben had said. Alexis had laughed at his mistake, but their mum had looked tired.

‘No, Ben, your father is an adult.’

Alexis knew not to talk about Dad with her anymore, but Ben came back from their visits recounting things he had said, not noticing the uncomfortable, careful way she responded.

‘Dad said he’s gonna be his own boss soon.’

‘Well. Good for him.’

‘He’s gonna organise other people to paint houses so he doesn’t have to anymore.’

‘I hope that works out.’

‘Then will you get back together? He says you left cos he didn’t have a good job.’

‘No, Benny, this is the way things are now.’

Alexis never wanted them back together. She was old enough to remember how it had been.

The rainy day crawled along in the cramped motel room. They borrowed Monopoly from the reception, and Ben insisted on being the banker, even though he was slow and got the notes muddled. Their dad started going on about capitalism after landing on Park Lane, which Alexis owned. The game was abandoned to an argument.

Alexis wondered what everyone was doing at Juliet’s. The unfairness of not being there stung.

In the evening their dad got fish and chips. It was meant to be a treat, but Alexis didn’t feel like eating. Ben picked at the chips, his bottom lip protruding, still holding a grudge from Monopoly.

‘Eat up, you two,’ their dad said.

‘I’m not really hungry,’ Alexis said.

‘I only like chips with tomato sauce,’ said Ben. ‘And this sauce tastes funny.’

‘It’s just different to the one we have at home,’ Alexis said.

‘This is your home,’ their dad said.

‘This isn’t our home. It’s a motel,’ said Ben, perking up at the opportunity to correct an adult.

‘Wrong.’ Their dad grabbed some chips, stubbed them in the tub of sauce. ‘You’re here with me. So, you’re home.’

‘But we don’t have any of our stuff here.’

‘Stuff isn’t important. Doesn’t mean anything.’

‘What about school? We don’t go to school here,’ Ben said.

‘None of that matters.’ Their dad slammed his hand down. ‘You’re here with me.’

No one said much after that. They watched a movie on the old TV about two bungling police officers. Their dad said it was a classic.

 

 

Alexis woke to pain in her stomach. The room was dark and still, and she could tell that their dad was out. The pain came and went, a dull stabbing. After a while, headlights glared through the thin curtain, swooped across the wall. Alexis pretended to sleep as he came in with shopping bags and his big backpack. She lay, not moving, and watched him pack it all, then slump, hunched and shaking. Crying, Alexis realised with a mixture of thrill and fear. He was crying.

He kicked off his shoes and got into bed. The feeling in Alexis’s stomach subsided. She tried to stay awake to listen, but if he was crying it melded with the rattling hum of the mini fridge, the rain on the roof, the wind.

In the morning, sun slanted in. Their dad was up and dressed, hair wet from a shower, and it was like Alexis had imagined the scene from the night before. They checked out and drove to the beach for a breakfast of chocolate biscuits in the dunes. It was too cold for swimming, but Ben and their dad dug a huge hole and channel to the sea, yelling encouragement at the waves to reach the hole. Alexis drew pictures in the sand with driftwood and signed her name with great swooping letters. She checked her phone, but there was nothing to see. When her mum had first given her the phone, it had felt, momentarily, like a gate opening to a new world. But her mum made it clear it was only for emergencies, and only for these visits. She had blocked it from downloading apps, and her mum was the only one with the number. Alexis’s argument that other people her age had their own phones hadn’t swayed her at all.

Alexis had been given the phone after the visit in March when their dad hadn’t turned up at the station. Trains had rumbled past and Ben had whined about being hungry and bored. Alexis had been hungry and bored too, but there was no one for her to whine to and nothing to do except sit and wait.

The man from the ticketing window had come over.

‘You two look like lost luggage,’ he had said, and lent Alexis his phone. She had tried their dad twice, but he didn’t pick up. So she had to call their mum, and because there wasn’t a train for two hours, she had driven an hour to collect them. She had just pulled up and they were about to get in her car when their dad arrived. He stopped so his car blocked hers from leaving and got out. Their mum wound down her window.

‘No way!’ he said. ‘This is my night.’

‘Nope. You weren’t here, so they’re coming home with me.’

‘A mate was helping fix my car, it took longer than we thought.’ His grey car had a blue door where the dented one had been.

‘So what? They’re kids! You don’t just leave them waiting for hours.’

‘Chill out, they were fine.’

‘They were scared.’

Neither was right.

‘One night, Justine. One night a month.’ Their dad had turned to Alexis and Ben who were still standing by their mum’s car. ‘You guys wanna come with me, right?’

‘You don’t have to,’ their mum said. ‘You can come home.’

Alexis had wished there was a third option, something that would beam her up and away from the car park, and this contest between her parents that went on and on, with barbed little victories but never a resolution. Ben tugged at her hand and she let him decide.

‘New door!’ he said.

‘That’s right,’ their dad had said, opening it like a chauffeur, standing wide, waving them in. Alexis had hated his look of triumph.

 

 

The wind whipped up the sand on the beach, so they walked over the dunes to the playground with the skulking seagulls. Alexis sat on a swing and scuffed her feet. Their dad stood, watching Ben climb up the slide, and Alexis thought he might cry again.

‘Can I have a push to get started?’ she called out, although she hadn’t needed that for years.

He came over and pulled the swing back, making a beeping sound like a reversing truck. As he let go, Alexis dropped her head back and the sky lurched. She moved her legs in and out, swinging until the chains juddered at the top of the arc as if they were trying to buck her off.

On the way to the station Ben complained that they hadn’t had lunch.

‘I can’t send you back hungry,’ their dad said, and stopped at the mall. Alexis’s stomach felt heavy. She didn’t want food, she wanted to be home. This meant they would have to wait until the 3 o’clock train. In the bakery their dad filled a bag with cakes and pastries. It was too much, far more than they could eat. Her stomach twisted. That stabbing feeling again.

‘I need to go to the toilet,’ she said.

‘Okay, see you back at the car.’

Alexis walked through the mall. Her parents had met here, working at shops that didn’t exist anymore, her mum an apprentice in the hair salon, her dad at the butcher’s, both just out of school, only six years older than Alexis. All her mother ever said about that time was that they were way too young. In the bathroom, the air thick with pine air freshener not quite masking the other smells, Alexis twisted the lock closed and sat down.

There was a reddish smudge in her underpants. She wiped herself and there were more streaks of red on the paper. It was her first time. She knew what it was – from her mum and from a session at school where boys had been ushered out of the classroom and girls were shown diagrams about how to use tampons and pads. Not many people in her class had their period yet, or had admitted to having it. They had all been told it was natural and normal and nothing to be ashamed of. But boys playing lunchtime cricket at school had found a tampon once, and took turns throwing the little white bullet at each other, full of derision and disgust. Accusations had circled about whose pocket it had dropped from. Alexis had been mentioned, and like everyone else she had denied it – no way, as if – but she felt tainted all the same.

She folded toilet paper into a wad and put it in her underpants, hoping it would last the couple of hours until she was home.

Leaving the bathroom, she was sure people were staring. Could everybody see? A group of teenagers erupted into laughter as she passed and her face burned, thinking the blood must be showing. But she glanced sideways and they were in a huddle, fixated on one of their phones.

Ben and her dad were waiting in the car.

‘You were ages,’ Ben said with a mouth full of cake.

Their dad said they had time to kill and drove in the opposite direction to the train station. The town wasn’t big. Within a few streets, houses were sparse, then they were driving past farmland, cows and sheep and mathematical rows of something green. Their dad had started doing that thing, where he talked on and on, looking at them in the rear-view mirror.

‘The thing is, the system gears us to be dissatisfied with what we have. It’s like sugar. They load it into everything – bread, mayonnaise, you name it. So basically, we’re all addicted. We crave it, but we need more and more of it to actually taste sweetness. Go back and measures of status were different. Cars? Didn’t exist. En suites? There wasn’t indoor plumbing! A few hundred years ago if you got to my age with your own teeth in your head you were winning.’

Ben didn’t even pretend to listen. He dabbed his finger against his tongue and made a pattern on the car window with his spit. Alexis just wanted him to keep his eyes on the road as it got steeper and winding. She guessed he was taking them to a forest park where they had camped a couple of times. Alexis didn’t like staying there. Even on nice days it felt gloomy, closed in by trees and mountains, and it was popular with hunters, who frightened Alexis with their guns strapped to their backs and their bristling, impatient dogs. Now her dad was talking about food productivity. The toilet paper between her legs was bunched up and uncomfortable. They drove past the entrance to the car park where they had stayed, and then turned off down a narrow, unsealed road, with bush pressing in each side. They needed to turn around now if they had any hope of making the 3 o’clock train.

‘Dad? Shouldn’t we be heading back?’ she said.

‘There’s no reason for anyone to be going hungry.’

‘Dad?’

‘There are 400 golf courses in New Zealand alone. 400!’ A few minutes later he came to a stop, motor still running. ‘Out we get.’

Alexis and Ben stood at the side of the road. He opened the boot and unpacked their bags.

‘What about the train?’ Alexis said, but he was back in the car, wheels spinning on stones, and then he was gone. The sound of the car faded and the silence left behind was too big.

‘Is he coming back?’ Ben whispered.

Alexis had no idea.

‘Yeah, of course,’ she said, like he was dumb for asking.

‘What if he doesn’t? I’m hungry.’

‘Eat, then.’ Alexis nudged the bag from the bakery that was at their feet. ‘God, don’t be such a baby,’ she said, trying to keep her own worry in check, sick of having to be the one to reassure.

She got the phone out of her backpack. There was no reception. Ben sat down, eating a donut quickly and unhappily. The sun dipped behind the trees and the drop in temperature was immediate.

‘Jacket on,’ she said, making her voice soft. Ben hated his jacket because it was yellow and used to be Alexis’s and still had her name written inside. But when she held it out he put it on without complaining. She wiped cream from the corner of his mouth and handed him a chocolate milk. She was going to take one too, but worried that drinking would make more blood come.

‘Dad’ll be back real soon, Benny. Any minute.’ As if on cue he jogged into view.

‘Man, you should see your worried faces!’ he laughed, and stood hands on hips, catching his breath. ‘Good news! It’s camping time. I spoke to your mum earlier and she agreed you can stay another night.’

‘Where’s the car?’ Alexis asked.

‘I had to find a spot for it. There’s no room to park here.’

‘Where are we going to sleep?’

He gestured to the forest behind her. ‘In there.’ She hadn’t noticed the start of a track.

‘We’re going to do proper camping. I’ve got a new tent.’ He hoisted on his backpack, so bulky that he almost lost his balance. ‘Ready for an adventure?’

He started walking. Ben put on his own bag and scrambled after him and all Alexis could do was follow. The track was overgrown, or maybe it had never been well-formed. Orange tags nailed onto trees marked the route. Leaves held on to yesterday’s rain and dampened her clothes as she passed. Mud sucked at her sneakers. Had their mum really said they could stay? They had missed a visit two months ago when she and Ben were sick. It was possible she’d agreed to make up for that. But with school the next day? And there was the other problem. Alexis slowed down, slipped her hand down the front of her jeans and touched her underpants. Her fingers came back red. She called out that she needed to go to the toilet.

‘We’ll wait,’ her dad called back.

She found a spot hidden by bushes and pulled down her jeans. The toilet paper was sodden and shocking red. She scuffed a hole in the earth with her heel and dropped the wad in and covered it. Blood was showing through on the outside of her jeans. She opened her bag trying to find something to use, but they never brought much with them. It was only meant to be one night.

‘You okay, Lexi?’ her dad called out, and she could see him through the trees, coming towards her. She grabbed a sock and stuffed it in her underpants.

‘Coming,’ she called back, pulling up her jeans. She took off her jacket and tied it around her waist.

She thought about telling him. Maybe he would say they could go back. But did men even know about it? What if he didn’t understand, or he didn’t believe her? What if he wanted to see?

‘Here, have some water. This walking is thirsty work.’

He handed her a bottle. She took it and pretended to drink.

 

 

They perched on a log, eating instant noodles. Alexis was relieved it was nearly dark. She couldn’t see the state of her jeans, which meant neither could Ben or her dad. Alexis only ate the noodles, tilting her bowl and pouring out the liquid when they weren’t looking. Their dad packed away the gas cooker and said it was time to go.

‘We’re not staying here?’ she said.

‘We’d roll down the hill in our sleep. We’ll be on flat ground soon.’

‘But it’s dark,’ Ben said.

‘Good thing I thought ahead.’ He rummaged in a pocket of his backpack then dangled a headlamp in front of each of them. ‘Told you this would be an adventure.’

He helped adjust the elastic, showed them where the on button was, and they set off again. Three bright eyes in the night.

 

 

Alexis stared at the blank blue of the tent wall. She had almost believed their mum had agreed to an extra night. But in the lamplight last night, when her dad was getting the tent out of his pack, she’d seen a big bag of rice, packets of noodles, extra gas canisters, enough for days and days – far more days than their mum would ever agree to. She could see now it was all deliberate, walking on this track that didn’t even have a sign, the car parked who knows where. He didn’t want them to be found. But the longer it went on the more trouble he would be in – and not just from their mum.

She rolled over carefully. Ben was a scruff of hair at the top of the sleeping bag next to her, and her dad was a featureless mound on the other side. She gathered her things, and eased up the tent zip, glad that sleeping through anything was another way her dad and brother were the same.

Outside it was light, but not fully, like the colour of the world was still getting turned up. Everything was covered by a soft fuzz of moss, and beech trees stretched up towards the brightening sky. Walking at night, it had seemed the trees were props that sprung up when she shone her light on them and collapsed again when they were in the dark. Now she could see the trees went on forever.

Alexis moved away from the tent and squatted down, but no wee came out. The sock had moved out of place in her sleep and her underpants and jeans were a mess. She smelled bad down there. Not drinking was working though, she noted with relief. The blood was coming out thicker and darker, like it was drying up. It was worth feeling thirsty.

She needed to start walking.

The day before they had walked for five hours, maybe six. Her phone had run out of battery and her had dad said the time didn’t matter. If she left now she could maybe contact her mum by lunchtime, they could be home in the afternoon, and sleep in their own beds that night. Maybe it could all be explained as a misunderstanding.

There was the matter of her jeans. She needed to find a river or a stream to wash herself. They hadn’t crossed any on the track walking in, but she thought she had heard water a few times. Then, when she was clean, she would find the road and walk until she saw people and could ask to call her mum. A river then the road, she repeated in her head. She found an orange track marker nailed to a tree and started to walk.

 

 

Water. She was sure of it. She turned sideways to edge down the slope, using trees as handrails to steady herself. But where it seemed there should be water, there was only the sound of it, and more forest, more slope. She kept going down until she reached the bottom of a gully. There might have been a river there once but she had heard only the ghost of it, or a trick of the wind, because there was no water there now. She had wasted what, an hour? She started climbing. It was slower, and harder, pulling herself up. When she thought she had climbed enough, she looked for a marker on a tree but there were none. The forest made false paths, with tree roots suggesting stairs, ferns seeming to line a trail, before ending in a rock or a drop or a dense tangle of bush.

Her tongue felt like carpet, throat like sand. She would give anything for a drink. It had been dumb not to take any food from the tent. She sat down and looked through her bag, just in case. Toothpaste? She squeezed the tube into her mouth, thinking it might at least get rid of the rough feeling, but the gob of gel was thick and gummy. She didn’t have enough saliva to spit it out so had to wipe her tongue on her sleeve.

The sun was beyond its high point so it must be afternoon. It had been in front of them yesterday, and so if she kept it behind her, surely she would reach a road eventually. She made herself stand, made herself keep going.

The sun tracked its way across the sky. Had anyone walked here, ever?

The trees thinned and she hoped, briefly, that she was coming to the edge of the forest. She imagined emerging into a backyard with white sheets flapping on a washing line. But no. She stood on a rocky ledge, and the ground dropped away and a valley spread out before her. There were mountains waiting behind the mountains. The low sun caught on the seam of water far below, turning the surface gold. She had found her river, but it was impossible to reach.

Wind blew and she could see its progress, a huge invisible hand skimming across the trees like velvet pushed the wrong way.

It would be cold soon. Everything ached. Pain knuckled her head. Her tongue was too big for her mouth. Her body was a too-heavy thing she was sick of hauling around. Time to rest.

Back in the forest, Alexis found a hollow in the earth beside a fallen beech tree. It would fit her fine. She lay on her side, the way she always fell asleep. She pulled her green jacket around her. The ferns formed an awning and the tree was reassuring against her back. Nothing here minded the blood. The smell of her was just another smell alongside sap and damp earth and rotting wood. She was lost luggage. Her mum would come and get her, or her dad would find her. Next to her face, her hand was resting on fallen beech leaves, each the size of a fingernail and coloured dark green, or red, or brown the same shade as her hair. Alexis shut her eyes.

 

 

The white dog moves through the night forest, a whorl of muscle and intention. Time is running out. His people are tired. He absorbs the scents from the earth, the scents in the air, his whole being filtering them.

Then – there – a scent, pulling him along a ridge, over rocks, moss, through the bush. There is nothing elective to this movement. The scent splits, intensifies, and he slows, nose to the ground. He is close. Tree, tree, tree, ferns, girl.

She is oil and salt and a streak of chemical mint and blood. Most of all she is blood. Wounded? He nudges at her. Not wound blood, but her own, old, and new.

The girl jerks and opens her eyes. Fear rises off her like steam. He inhales it, and the hairs on his neck stiffen automatically, his mouth ready to snarl. But she doesn’t move, just lies, body tense, breath like she has been running. Then, because he has been so long, two faint whistle blasts. He tilts his head towards the sound, then back to consider her. He whines. He could bark. He could draw his people here.

No. She is not the animal they need.

And he is off, running again through the scents, trying to find a good one, before the night is done.

 

Photograph © Hannah Watkinson



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