Owen and Noelene, browbeaten by their spouses, struggle to find solace during a family holiday; by Bruce Costello.
From the lawn, where she'd gone to escape the heat and noise indoors, Noelene saw her sister, Sandra, still in her bikini, laying supper on the table. Noelene's husband, Stanley, was talking to their elderly mother, a tall, thin woman named Martha.
Seen through the slightly yellowed lace curtains, Stanley looked much older than his sixty-eight years. He was a podgy man with hunched shoulders, a bald head and gray sideburns that fell untidily over his ears.
It was peaceful in the garden. A sombre morepork owl hooted for a mate from the faraway beach pines, and Noelene felt like crying.
Somebody left the cottage and stood on the porch steps, peering out anxiously, naked from the waist up. It was Owen, Sandra's husband.
From the shadow of a kowhai tree, Noelene's weary eyes scanned Owen's body, his muscles standing out in sculpted relief from the abdomen, thighs taut and tantalizing in beach shorts. Remarkable, she thought, for a man in his late fifties, but he was an active man into hunting and tennis.
He sat down suddenly, head in hands and remained motionless for several minutes. Noelene was about to go to him, when he stood up, staring, hands on hips, in the direction of the morepork call, then whipped a striped towel off a deckchair and went back inside.
After supper, Noelene gathered the dishes and filled the sink with hot soapy water. Hearing her husband's footsteps, she flinched, clicked the top back on the detergent bottle and tightened the dripping hot water tap.
"What the bloody hell's wrong with you?" Stanley demanded, narrowing his eyes, thrusting his chest out and sucking in his belly.
"You've been sulking all evening."
"I'm just tired."
"You're always tired. Why don't you lighten up for a change?"
"Let's stop for a breather," wheezed Martha, Noelene's mother, next morning, after they'd trekked some distance along an overgrown path to the beach, picking their way around gorse bushes and hidden hollows that could twist an ankle. The sky was overcast, the air sultry and stifling and the sand hot between their toes.
They sank down onto a sandy mound beside a clump of marram grass. Noelene pulled a tissue from her bra and dabbed beads of perspiration on a face still pretty in its fine bone structure, from the curls of auburn hair now hanging limp over her forehead down to a tiny dimple in the chin.
The sickly sweet scent of lupins hung around them with its monotonous hum of bees.
"It's easy for you to moan about the way Stanley treats you," said Martha, in a crackly voice so loud that Noelene wondered if the breathlessness had been a ploy, "but what on earth are you doing to make him act like that?"
"I shouldn't have confided in you!" retorted Noelene. "You always assume I'm the one in the wrong!"
"I didn't say that."
"You implied it."
"I did not."
"You never listen to how I feel. You just judge and blame and make me feel worse. Like it's all my fault!"
"Well, it might be."
"See, there you go again!"
"Everybody else loves Stanley. He's a decent chap, always been a good provider."
"I realise I could've done worse," said Noelene, lowering her tone, "but he's so critical and now he's retired and home all day, he's got worse. It's wearing me down. I had hoped he'd find some new hobby, but his hobby seems to be following me around. 'What are you doing that for? Why haven't you put the tomato sauce bottle away? You've left the hot tap dripping!' and on and on he goes!"
"Wallowing in self-pity won't help," snapped Martha.
Noelene was reclining on the deck in front of the cottage, shading her eyes against the afternoon sun. The rattle of dishes and chatter floated through the open kitchen window.
"A penny for your thoughts." Owen appeared from behind the kowhai tree.
"I don't think so," Noelene replied, grimly. "Did you have a nice walk?"
He pulled a deckchair alongside and lay back, hands clasped on his stomach.
"How's your day been, Noelene?"
"I've had better."
"And yours?" she asked.
"The idea of this weekend was for us to 'come together as a family' according to my mother. But it's not going to happen until she stops treating me like I'm a silly sixteen year old. I'm nearly sixty, for goodness sake!" Noelene sat up a little higher, rearranging a pillow behind her. "I get so angry at myself for putting up with her. It's time I started to assert myself!"
"From what I've seen," Owen said quietly, sliding his legs over the side of the deckchair and looking at Noelene intently, "your husband treats you the same way."
Noelene's eyes widened.
"He does!" Owen continued, pulling at a long blade of grass growing through the decking. "It sticks out a mile. Stanley treats you like crap, pretty much as your mother does." He hesitated. "The same way your darling sister Sandra treats me. I feel like I'm walking on egg shells all the time. Everything seems to be about possession and control. I know she checks my emails, and, I suspect, my cell phone while I'm in the shower. At one stage, she was convinced 'Bob' was short for Bobby, a woman I work with, and she started stalking her. Talk about humiliating! Bob is just a bloke I play tennis with and occasionally we have a few drinks! But Sandra reads everything the wrong way. Whatever I do that is normal becomes something I have to defend."
He placed the blade of grass between his thumbs and, blowing gently, imitated the morepork's call. Then he tossed the blade away.
Noelene stared at him as he continued. "But sadly, I went through this sort of thing with my first wife and just can't deal with it. I wish I could stick up for myself. Guess I'm just like my father." He paused. "He was miserable for years married to my mother, then one night he'd had enough, got pissed and drove into a truck."
"Sometimes it seems life's not worth living. You can only take so much. Then it all builds up. And eventually..."
Owen rose from the deckchair. He stood looking down at Noelene, then took her hand and bent over close to her face, as if to kiss her.
"Don't be an idiot," she said, turning away. "Sit down and let's talk."
"I'm sorry." Jumping off the deck, Owen walked quickly down the garden path, turning to glance at Noelene before going through the gate.
It's been a long time since anyone took my hand like that, she thought. He actually seems to understand and care about me, though he's kind of sad and helpless, and needy, and his breath stinks of alcohol."
Owen returned a few minutes later. "I'm so sorry," he flustered, his face bright red. "My emotions're all over the place, have been for a while. I feel as if my mind's in a million fragments." His eyes welled with tears.
"It's okay." Noelene patted the chair beside her. "But alcohol won't help. Please sit down and let's talk. I'm worried about you."
"You needn't think you're skiving off rabbit shooting tonight," Sandra announced to Owen over dinner. "It's high time you helped me out with the work around the place!" Her black pony tail swung as she attacked a rind of pork with a steak knife.
"Well said!" exclaimed Martha, clapping, the bones of her hands showing through white skin.
Stanley, cheeks bulging with cabbage and potato, kept his eyes on his plate and made sucking noises through loose dentures.
Owen glared at Sandra, then with a glance at Noelene, quaffed the wine in his hand, poured another from the cask in front of him and tipped it down his throat. He picked up a pork chop from his plate, tore a strip off with his teeth, then bunched up his serviette and threw it on the table.
He ran upstairs to the bedroom and returned holding his rifle. Leaning it against the oak trolley that doubled as a drink server, he poured a long vodka into a wine glass and threw it back in one hit. Nearly choking briefly, he grabbed the rifle and strode over to the table.
"Hey!" cried Sandra. "What the devil do you think you're doing?"
"Goodbye," Owen said to Noelene, bending down and kissing her on the lips, before stomping to the door, yanking it open and stepping into the calm night.
"What's going on?" Sandra shrieked. "Why was he kissing you?"
"He's depressed," Noelene said, a tremor in her voice.
"He's an ignorant bastard, that's what he is! Won't do a thing I ask him, and now he thinks he can get out of the dishes by taking off hunting rabbits!"
Noelene reached across the table and grabbed some plates. Raising them high above her head, she smashed them to the floor.
"Now I've finally got your attention," she screamed at Sandra, "instead of you being so totally absorbed in your precious bloody fingernails that you can't see what's going on around you, I'll say it again. The poor man's depressed! And I wouldn't push him too far if I were you. Can't you see he's on the edge?"
She leaned across the table, thrust her head forward and stared into Sandra's face. "I think Owen would rather be dead than go on living with you," she said, then stopped, hand over mouth.
A stunned expression crossed Sandra's face. "You don't mean...?" she said finally, her voice barely audible. "He wouldn't have the balls..."
Noelene jumped up, sending her chair flying backwards.
Stanley thumped his fist on the table.
A rifle shot rang out through the trees.
Noelene raced out the door, slamming it so hard the glass shattered.
Silence fell in the room.
"Another bunny bites the dust," muttered Stanley, staring vacantly through the broken door.
"I hope he doesn't expect me to gut it." Noelene's mother sat back in disgust, arms folded.
But a dreadful change came over Sandra, like a sudden metamorphosis. Her skin stretched like parchment across her cheek bones. Her lips drew back in a ghastly grimace that became a wail as she hurled herself out the door and flailed through the darkness, screaming Owen's name.