For the long weekend Mike and Isobel drove all the way to Elaine’s Bay where they picnicked on the beach out of the wind, below the boulders supporting the path to the jetty.
And at the end of the bread, the goat cheese and gherkins, the tinned mussels, the tomatoes, Isobel took the dishes to the water and washed them there. Mike continued to read the Sunday paper.
“Mike. I’ve cut my thumb.”
Mike looked up.
“I’ve cut my thumb on the knife.”
“Well Izzy that’s.. that’s really silly. How bad is it?”
“It’s alright. Is there a tissue in the basket?”
Mike looked in the basket.
“There’s one. You’ll need a plaster from the car.”
Wrapping her thumb in the tissue, Isobel walked up to the car. Mike went back to his paper. After ten minutes or so he looked up. No Isobel. Just a funny looking truck and trailer making their way up the road across the bay.
Of the whole Sunday paper, Mike liked best the book reviews. Not that he had any intention of reading a book as such. Mike did not read books. He feared they would by some unaccountable seriousness bore his brains out, but then once started, for the very same seriousness, require him to read on to the end. Most often he got just enough of the idea of it all from the paper. Now and then an author might be interviewed, invariably kindly. Authors were amazing people.
Having read every review, Mike reluctantly stood up. He looked at the Mexican blanket spread out on the stones. Its tassles were tangled. It had a hole, and its once bright colours were slowly fading. Isobel’s socks and cigarette lighter lay on the stones beside the blanket.
Mike walked up to the car.
He stood before the space where it had been parked. Isobel and the aubergine Nissan station wagon were gone together. Mike’s sigh knew so. And his eyes too.
A venetian blind fluttered loudly in a sudden draught. Awake, Mike listened to the traffic. By the frequency of cars going by and the dim light he guessed it might be nearly six.
The previous afternoon? Most other people had wandered further along the beach. And how to ask for a ride to Picton? My wife has left me? My wife has driven off. Actually, my wife has driven away in the life which we own together.
He turned over. No sleeping position seemed perfect anymore.
Daryl, a builder with dark brown, bullet-straight hair, was already gone to work. Gabrielle, a big-boned woman in her thirties, cooked bacon and eggs and made coffee. She worked at the vet clinic.
After breakfast Mike said thank you and goodbye and walked into town. He phoned home from the bus station. A woman answered.
“Hello. Is Isobel there?”
“You’ve got the wrong number.”
“Is this five seven three nine eight five five?”
“She’s not here. There is no Isobel.”
Mike was momentarily silent.
“Hello?” The woman at the other end had a distinctive, drawly way of talking. “I think you’ve got the wrong number.”
“Don’t worry. I’m coming.”
Mike stopped on the footpath outside his house on Hazel Street. He looked over the garden. The familiar picture sent a wave of relief through his body. Opening the gate, he walked up to the front door and turned the door-handle. It was locked. Mike winced, realising he had no key. He pressed the buzzer and knocked on the stained glass for good measure.
Hearing footsteps, he braced himself. A huge man with long greying hair in a biker’s leather jacket opened the door and stood astride the threshold. As they stared at each other Mike put two and two together. This was even worse.
“And you are?” The stranger was first to break the silence. He spoke with some sort of Scottish accent.
“Mike. Mike. I live here.”
“You live here.”
“We live here. Isobel and I.”
The biker tilted his head. “Eve. You better come and see this.”
Before long, the incongruously pleasant face of a middle-aged woman appeared.
“Mike lives here,” explained the biker. For two or three seconds all stared at each other, the woman smiling a faint, bewildered sort of smile. “But come in, come in,” she said, ushering him into the hall. “I’m Eve. This is Knut. Come in.”
They sat around an antique dining-room table Mike had never seen before. Would Mike like a cup of tea?
Isobel wasn’t living here anymore. Who exactly was Isobel? Yes, the furniture was almost certainly different. Where had all the furniture gone? That was a good question. Funny though, the wallpaper being the same.
“We’ve rented here two and a half, nearly three years,” insisted Mike.
“You must be mistaken. I’ve been here.. well, ever since.. Would you like a drink?”
Mike nodded and made some noise with his throat.
As she poured a ginger beer into a long since stolen pub-glass Eve continued her version of events. “We bought this house in ninety four. That’s fifteen years. We certainly haven’t rented it out for any time. Do you think there’s any possible way you could have lived in a different house?”
“No,” said Mike.
Mike recounted how Isobel had disappeared at the beach. That is, she had left him. She had disappeared. Or otherwise..
Eve was very patient. Even Knut smiled. “We should tell the police,” he shrugged.
“The police,” said Mike. Eve got the phone from the kitchen and dialed 111. She handed it to Mike.
“Police. Thank you. Hello. Yes. I believe my wife is missing. Mike Rainey. Rainey. Isobel. Rainey. Yes. Elaine’s Bay. She left with just the car. We were on a picnic. Forty five. She took the car. Because I’m at our house in Picton. Where would she be? Now? She’s not here! Maybe she’s.. Excuse me? Nissan station wagon. Registration? One minute. Yes, I know she’s run off! Aubergine. Egg plant. Average. Maybe five foot six. Black hair, curly. Pointy nose..”
While the drawly-voiced Eve rummaged around in the sun-room, Mike tried to remember his life with Isobel. Somehow he could remember nothing. The barest detail. Mangled wires. Hundreds of white butterflies. An uncommonly circular hole of a bedroom window the size of an apple.
It all happened so slowly.
Having found the piece of paper she was looking for, Eve held it out to Mike. Mike spontaneously passed it on to Knut. And so Knut read aloud the contents of the page in his gravelly Norwegian accent. It was Eve Rosalind Turner’s title to a property at number 39 Hazel Street.
Mike bought a newspaper at the gas station and continued walking into town, feeling better. In town he bought a souvenir bag, two souvenir t-shirts, three pairs of souvenir boxer shorts, three pairs of souvenir socks and a book from a shop selling worthless things to tourists.
In the motel he drank instant coffee and stared at the newspaper. He disturbed himself with frivolity. Matter-of-factness. Bad news. Nothing Happened Today. Poisoned milk sachets. No one was missing.
He thought of Eve and Knut and of their amazing kindness. Twenty four years was a long time. Actually twenty five. Quite a lot. Too much to throw away. Only, the explanation hadn’t yet landed.
In the bedroom mirror he looked himself in the face. He looked at his hands and clothes, examining himself for signs of normality. Eccentric eyebrows. Wild eyes. Clothes awry. Smelliness. A goatee beard.
But there was no use. Instead, he took a shower.
He rang Isobel’s parents in Auckland. They mistook him for someone else and hung up after a half a minute. He rang again and they hung up straight away. He rang her best friend Marie, but Marie wasn’t home. Only Terry. Terry was the new guy.
So he walked down to a restaurant near the water and sat at a table by the window. He eyed the other diners. A pleasantly vengeful feeling presented itself in his stomach.
Walking back to the motel, Mike stopped to admire the view: houses with a backdrop of cut-over bush. A hawk swooped up low to the hills chased by two magpies. They disappeared behind some trees.
“I am mad,” he told himself. The thought was somehow reassuring. When she found out he was mad.. Mike heard already the tone of Isobel’s mother’s voice telling her friends he had been removed to an asylum. “Mike couldn’t see her. Isobel simply disappeared from his field of vision. Utterly strange. He tried to find her but went in the wrong direction.” It was so intriguing.
Later, while seeming to examine the motel key, Mike watched TV with the sound off. Later still, he found some biscuits in the kitchen. He examined the crossword. He studied the title of his book, along with its publishing details. He washed and dried a very small number of dishes. He became tired.
Without re-phoning Marie, he put himself to bed. After all, he had a bank account. A job. A beginning. An end.
“Unique is the study of the certain.” The words rang in his ears. Mike sat up in the darkness and listened. He touched the motel air.
Isobel’s was not a scent you bought somewhere. It was hers. The perfume “Isobel.” It was the smell of..
Mike pictured Isobel as she bent over the dishes in the tide at Elaine’s Bay holding out her cut thumb. He pictured her in his arms so close her eyes were fuzzy. He breathed her in. But she was no longer there.
It was impossible to remember specific smells. Smells had no memory. Smells evoked memories and yet memories were not smells. Things happened, and then they evaporated.
Calmly, Mike thought through the facts.
Isobel was gone.
All trace of their life together had disappeared.
He himself was mad.
“It won’t be so hard to find out where she is,” he told himself. “She won’t even know me.”