14. Wheels turn

I.

Tai isn’t sure about Gracie. But a good dinner at Hemingway’s (Jo’s back on form), and a job offer from Norman (Tai’s never had a ‘job’) help. The first week of school goes well, arriving each morning with Firefly in the Jag. Lucy, that girl he likes, is in some of his classes. And impressed he’s got a job at Hemingway’s; her parents ate there for their anniversary. He likes the music classes and the technology too, thinks he’d like to make a film.

II.

Even Gracie’s dad’s impressed at her new house-sit, drops hints about a visit, preferably before Firefly leaves. But she’s having second thoughts. It’s the first time she’s had a teenager to care for, and she’s taken on board Jo’s remarks about her inexperience, her unproven parenting worth. Help comes from an unexpected source: Rebecca.

Rebecca’s heard about Tai’s grannie from Jo, and decides—as she does now and then—that as part-owner of Hemingway’s (and a grannie) she can contribute. She brings in an old iBook for Tai’s homework, makes him a cosy corner, makes sure Norman and Jo have thought through Tai’s goûter needs, suggests that Finn shows Tai how to do the go-fer things required for his job, from dish-washing to deliveries. They happily tolerate this interference—even welcome it, because they love her, know how she ticks and know that she knows what she’s doing. She’s there on Tai’s first day, warm and brisk, and he’s cautiously friendly to her.

Gracie explains to Tai he’ll need an IRD number and he rings for one. And Rebecca and Jo look closely at Tai’s IRD form. He’s filled it in well. Clear writing, every gap filled. Jo’s a little disappointed.

—Tyrone MacKay. Ty. Not Tai.

—We’ll ask when he’s used to us.

I’ll ask.

Rebecca enjoys learning about connections. Is curious about Tai’s. So she pushes a little. And Jo yields.

—Sure. But I want to be there too.

III.

That first week’s terrific.

Gracie’s pleased with herself. Even delighted, when at the end of the week, she drives Tai over to New World in Firefly’s Jag, to stock up on washing powder and toilet paper.

Hemingway’s provides Tai with whites, and he loves whisking over to Moore Wilson’s in his gear, feeling professional. And when Jo—who he’s categorised as a ‘scary lady’— teaches him to make the next day’s lunch each night, from whatever’s to hand, he begins to like her a bit.

And Jo, watching Tai learn what he has to do, fit in with the others, do his homework, bides her time.

IV.   

Then at the beginning of the second week, towards the end of service, Firefly phones in.

Talks with Gracie briefly, on the desk line. She darts through to Tai in the office, gets him to pick up the phone, and hurries back to the floor.

Then Jo hears Tai shouting.  Focuses on plating the mussels in front of her, puts them on the pass. And puts her head round the office door. Tai’s slumped in the chair Rebecca brought in for him, looks up at Jo and glares.

They both speak at once.

—What’re you looking at?

—You OK?

Tai leaps up and pushes past Jo. She follows him to the back door.

Watches discreetly as he leans against the outside wall, fumbles in his pocket and pulls out a joint. She steps forward. Holds out her hand for the joint.

—Not here. Not now.

—I’ve finished work. Finished my school work.

—Not here. Not now– What’s up?

—Nothing.

He tucks the joint back in his pocket.

Distract him, Jo thinks. She gestures to the City Radio Station.

—That was a while ago now.

He gets what she’s saying. He’s moved on, his life’s changed. Jo sighs. She’s moved on, too. Her life’s changed. Wonder what Vita’s doing? Distract him. Wonder what he’ll say if–

—How did you know that Vita camps at City Radio? A guess?

—That snotty bitch–

—Hey. Don’t talk like that–

—And it’s all her fault.

—All her fault what?

—That Firefly’s come out–

Aha. It’s happened. Somehow via Vita. And Tai doesn’t like it.

—That’s Firefly’s decision. If it makes him happy–

He unties his apron (often leaves it on all evening, loves his uniform).

—I’m going home.

—Check in with Gracie then.

—You’re not the boss of me (bundles his apron in his fist, then remembers he’s to fold it properly, shakes it out, and folds it precisely).

—(mildly) That’s right, you’re finished for tonight. I was confused, because you’re still in your whites. But I know Gracie’d like to know.

He flings himself back inside. Jo calls after him.

—Night!

And then looks back at City Radio. Thinks about Vita. Has an idea.

V. 

The three of them go to Firefly’s place, to watch Firefly’s news on cable. Tai’s mostly silent, trails around after Gracie and Jo, when Gracie shows the place to Jo. In Firefly’s bedroom, Jo throws herself on the huge bed.

—WOW. The three of us could sleep here and there’d still be room!

Gracie leaps  beside her, both of them laughing. Then Jo sees Tai’s face. It’s shifted from grumpy to CLOSED. But his mouth opens.

—Stop it– Firefly’d be pissed off–

Jo jumps up, pulls Gracie to her feet.

—Supper time. News time.

So they drink hot chocolate, and eat cheese and tomato on toast, and while they wait for Firefly on the news, Tai softens a little and shows Jo all Firefly’s kitchen gear, very classy. She helps him make his school lunch, praises his new skills (Finn’s been giving him knife lessons), and as they tidy up, feels the atmosphere relax enough to suggest her idea.

—After school tomorrow, I thought you could make up a little special delivery picnic. You confident enough for that? Come up with some ideas, and put it all together?

She can see he isn’t too sure.

—I’d be there of course, to help–

There’s a shout from Gracie. Firefly’s on.

VI.   

On the other side of the world, Firefly’s another person than the one they know. Seated in front of a bank of microphones, in a suit and a new haircut, he’s impressive. Looks like he owns the world. Very matter-of-fact, a poster man for all those poster men: Marlborough Man, Southern Man, American Express; and just a hint of Jockey. And with an impressive quiet dignity.

—Oh, isn’t he wonderful? (Gracie) Aren’t you proud he’s your friend, Tai?

Tai tries to play it cool, nods, eyes fixed on the screen. Not a word, the beginnings of a tiny smile.

Then the inevitable question from a journalist.

—And is there someone special in your life?

—Yes.

—Will we get to meet him?

—Not tonight.

Back to the sports presenter.

—What an extraordinary man. And he’s left us all wanting more. Look out for that memoir.

Gracie clicks the remote and the image fades.

—O wow. Whaddya think?

Tai’s NOT happy.

—I think he’ll never come back. I’ll never see him again.

Quick as a flash, Gracie and Jo are with him. They calm him down, gentle him to bed (school tomorrow) and promise that if Firefly doesn’t ring very soon, Gracie will track him down.

VII.  

Tai seems slow and vague the next afternoon, so when he’s finished his work Jo’s surprised to see him appear next to her, looking alert.

—That special job for me today–

—Oh. I thought we’d leave it till tomorrow. Give us time to bounce back from the excitement.

But they talk about it, the kinds of breads available, the possible fillings, how bread isn’t actually necessary, ideas about a little pie, salads, cheeses and sweet things.

—You give me some ideas, and make it look good, and I’ll prepare the more complicated things.

—Who’s it for?

—A secret, until you deliver it. A surprise for someone.

—Rebecca–

—I’m not telling.

She gives him a couple of recipe books.

—Read them when you’ve finished your homework.

—I’m not ten. You’re not my mother. I’ll manage my homework.

Gracie takes Tai home early, and they attempt to track down Firefly. No luck at any of the possible numbers. They email.

VIII.

Vita’s very surprised when a tall young man in whites appears at the door of her office, carrying a covered basket. Even more surprised when the tall young man says

—Here to nick your laptop. Jo insisted.

She looks him in the eye, gives a rueful smile, and holds out her hand.

—Tai. I’m sorry I was such a tit.

Tai hands her the basket, and she places it on her desk, holds out her hand again. He gets it. They shake hands.

Such a tit. Several times. I wasn’t coping well. With anything.

Tai shrugs. Decides to be charming.

—No worries.

He lifts the lid on the basket.

—Jo thought you’d like a picnic tea. And they’re flat out so she sent me over.

They look inside. Tai explains the various dishes, and his part in the preparation.

—It looks wonderful. Shall we have a wee share of those petits fours?

So they do, and Tai asks about the photograph by Vita’s computer and she says it’s her son. Vita introduces Tai around, shows him a couple of the studios. And she gets Jo’s cellphone number from him, so she can thank her. As she says to her therapist later that evening, all in all she handles it pretty well. But she wishes Jo hadn’t sent the basket over. The therapist waits.

—I felt cranky about it. Pursued.

—Pursued?

—Yes.

—You like Jo.

—Yes.

—So why do you feel pursued?

—I want her to leave me alone.

—And sending Tai with a picnic is not leaving you alone?

—Of course it isn’t.

—But you got her number from Tai?

—I have to thank her–

—You could have sent a message, a note, and you’d be done, wouldn’t have to think about it again?

—You saying I don’t want to be left alone?

—I’m asking–

Vita can’t quite get there.

—I’ll think about it.

She still hasn’t told her therapist where she’s living.

IX.

Tai returns to Hemingway’s down the fire escape (“Let’s try your old route”, said Vita) and through the back yards. Takes a look into ‘his’ shed on the way, can’t now imagine  how he spent so much time there. Wonders about Firefly, overwhelmed with anxiety that things will turn to custard if Firefly doesn’t return.

He goes from charming to bratty in the minute it takes to cross the yards.

His report to Jo is terse. And he slopes off to do his homework (maybe). And Jo takes a fresh bit of gum.

X.

Gracie’s very happy to reach her day off. Stretches out in bed, wonders what she might do. She’s a little worn from this house-sitting gig: Tai’s not a pet, or plants, and having him at work as well has been demanding.

Then, here he is in the doorway, clasping that dorky thermal bag Jo’s given him for lunches.

—I’ve slept in. Can you drop me at school?

Every cell in Gracie’s body says NO. But somehow, out of her mouth falls YES.  So she ferries him up Taranaki Street in that enormous Jag.

And after she drops him, fights off the impulse to swing onto the motorway north. Foxton straits in no time at all? Taupo for lunch? But she goes home. Puts on the coffee. And the phone rings.

XI.

The police try the school counsellor first. No, she said.

—I have no relationship with him. He came once. Became surly fast. Stayed ten minutes. Doing fine in his classes, no reason to take any further interest.

So then they ring Firefly’s. And get Gracie on her day off. Tell her that Tai has a connection to ‘a person of interest’ in one of their investigations. Gracie explains. Firefly’s out of the country. She’s in loco parentis. Up to Tai whether he wants to talk. But sure, come over this evening once he’s home from work, meet him and see what he says.

So Gracie drives to Hemingway’s to pick up Tai. Jo teases her.

—Really getting into the mother thing, babe? How’s Lisa?

Tai drags Finn out to see the car. Finn’s suitably impressed. Everything’s calm and happy.

And Tai seems unfazed when Gracie mentions the police.

—You don’t have to talk to them–

—I know.

—Know what it’s about?

He shrugs.

—I’ll be there, so they can’t pressure you–

He shrugs again.

And when they come, a brisk and friendly young man and a woman Gracie thinks Jo would enjoy, they’re immensely respectful of Tai. Who has showered, is beautifully dressed, not a hint of the street boy.

The brisk and friendly young man starts off.

—Tai you’re done nothing wrong, nothing at all. We’ve come to ask you for help.

He gives a general outline of what they’re looking at, a group who prey on young people, how one member of the group killed himself when the police approached him, but there are others. Then gets to the guts of it.

—We understand you know some of these guys (the guy who topped himself, Ivan, a couple of others). Had a little talk with your mate, Sam– We’d like to talk with you too, hear your side of the story.

—Nah. Don’t think so.

— Take your time. Think about it. We’re here if you change your mind.

Gracie gives Tai an encouraging smile. He gathers himself.

—I’ve put all that behind me.

(Go Tai! thinks Gracie.)

—Sure. Here’s a card. Just in case.

Then the woman breaks in for a moment.

—Seen Sam the last few days, Tai?

Quick as a flash, looking her in the eye.

—Nah.

—We seem to have lost track of him–

—Could be out of town–

When they leave, Tai says nothing. Doesn’t want to talk with Gracie. Texting rapidly, takes his phone to his room.

Gracie droops on the couch. Calls Firefly. Again can’t get through. Emails him. Rings her mother, apologises for not seeing Lisa this week.

By midnight, Gracie and Tai are fast asleep. Neither of them hears Firefly return, make himself at home, and hit the sack. And he doesn’t stir when Gracie and Tai sleep in again. Gracie drives Tai to school, then goes to work.

XII. 

Vita sees Gracie and Jo head-to-head out the back of Hemingway’s when she waters her geraniums, NOT doing well on the fire escape. (She forgets to water them, and they’re battered by the summer winds.) O fuck, she thinks, I haven’t rung Jo. So she whistles, a piercing wolf whistle. They don’t seem to notice. So she whistles again.

Gracie’s telling Jo about the visit from the cops. And defending herself.

—He’s 14. Working his phone. Why would he want to hear me ask if he’s OK? And he was fine this morning.

The second whistle comes just as each of them takes a breath. “Well”, says Gracie. “There’s an expert. Let’s ask her.” They wave to Vita, beckon. She points inside, shouts.

— See you soon–

It’s noisy in the mornings here, the wind’s blowing a gale, and they don’t hear her. She waves. They wave back, getting the message, they think. But Vita  runs back inside, she tells the techie she’ll be ten minutes, wedges open the fire-door and starts down the stairs.

Jo and Gracie are gone already, and she picks her way across the yards and in Hemingway’s back door. Straight into Norman.

—Where did you come from?

She points over her shoulder, introduces herself.

Jo’s busy at the stove, and Gracie’s disappeared. Jo shifts her gum to her cheek.

—Vita! Finn, look after this for a moment?

XIII.   

Firefly wakes up eventually, heads straight for Freyberg, gym-and-swim. Late lunch with lawyer, home for many calls. Another  brief nap, then  round to Hemingway’s for late dinner.

XIV.

In their break before service, Gracie and Jo perch on the City Radio fire escape with Vita and speculate about Tai. Of course, if he doesn’t want to talk that’s his choice. But if he does talk, will it be dangerous? Is he in danger anyway? And what can Gracie and Jo (and Rebecca) do to help? Vita has no idea.

—It could be just two or three yukky guys. A little local group. Wait for Firefly to come back.

They speculate about Tai’s family, what will happen to Tai if Firefly decides to live overseas. Vita has an obvious suggestion:

—Something we can do, very quietly, is track them down, using the info Tai gave on his IRD form. Unless he’s lied, of course.

To Jo, this is dodgy.

—Isn’t that a bit invasive? Why not ask Tai?

But Gracie’s excited. Something She Can Get Her Teeth into. A distraction from the problem that she’s going to need a new house-sit soon, that she’s in a kind of limbo, and with not enough down time (she tells herself) to sort through her options.

—It’s no different than you and Rebecca checking out his IRD form–

—Rebecca’s an owner, of course she looks at an employee’s IRD form if she wants to.

—But that isn’t why you looked–

— I looked because I cared. I thought he might be a rellie.

—So. I’m going to look because I care.

Vita watches them both, Jo chewing away, Gracie right in her face. Feels something now unfamiliar, affection. And, what a surprise, a surge of interest and commitment. At the back of her mind, she has questions about Firefly and Mop. This is the moment everything changes for her.

—Hey, you two. We all care. I’m a journalist, with no scruples about investigating Tai. I’ll do it.

The others look pleased.

—But I can’t do it from here, piggy backing on the neighbours’ wi-fi, or using City Radio’s. How’s your spare room Jo? May I use it for a while?

The others go into shock. Jo stops chewing. Gracie does her excellent blank look: behind it, computing whether she’ll miss out on being a hero, if Vita takes over, if she’ll miss out if Vita and Jo are under the same roof. How to do a fast save? Aha, this could be it.

—I’ve still got access to a whole lot of law school database subscriptions– Maybe I could help?

Her reservations blown away by Vita’s suggestions, Jo takes out a tissue, takes out her gum and wraps it in the tissue. Watching her, Vita smiles, and replies to Gracie.

—Of course.

And Jo finds her voice, and replies to Vita.

—Of course. Though it’s a bit of a mess at the mo. I’m working on our Sevens costumes. Labiates. You could be one too–

She isn’t sure what else to add, so she high fives Vita and then Gracie.

And then Norman leads Tai and Finn out of Hemingway’s back door. Tai and Finn each carry a stock pot and a wooden spoon. Norman lifts his arm and drops it. And Tai and Finn bang the pots with their spoons. Vigorously.

As one, Jo and Gracie give them the finger. Everyone laughs.

I.

Tai isn’t sure about Gracie. But a good dinner at Hemingway’s (Jo’s back on form), and a job offer from Norman (Tai’s never had a ‘job’) help. The first week of school goes well, arriving each morning with Firefly in the Jag. Lucy, that girl he likes, is in some of his classes. And impressed he’s got a job at Hemingway’s; her parents ate there for their anniversary. He likes the music classes and the technology too, thinks he’d like to make a film.

II.

Even Gracie’s dad’s impressed at her new house-sit, drops hints about a visit, preferably before Firefly leaves. But she’s having second thoughts. It’s the first time she’s had a teenager to care for, and she’s taken on board Jo’s remarks about her inexperience, her unproven parenting worth. Help comes from an unexpected source: Rebecca.

Rebecca’s heard about Tai’s grannie from Jo, and decides—as she does now and then—that as part-owner of Hemingway’s (and a grannie) she can contribute. She brings in an old iBook for Tai’s homework, makes him a cosy corner, makes sure Norman and Jo have thought through Tai’s goûter needs, suggests that Finn shows Tai how to do the go-fer things required for his job, from dish-washing to deliveries. They happily tolerate this interference—even welcome it, because they love her, know how she ticks and know that she knows what she’s doing. She’s there on Tai’s first day, warm and brisk, and he’s cautiously friendly to her.

Gracie explains to Tai he’ll need an IRD number and he rings for one. And Rebecca and Jo look closely at Tai’s IRD form. He’s filled it in well. Clear writing, every gap filled. Jo’s a little disappointed.

—Tyrone MacKay. Ty. Not Tai.

—We’ll ask when he’s used to us.

I’ll ask.

Rebecca enjoys learning about connections. Is curious about Tai’s. So she pushes a little. And Jo yields.

—Sure. But I want to be there too.

III.

That first week’s terrific.

Gracie’s pleased with herself. Even delighted, when at the end of the week, she drives Tai over to New World in Firefly’s Jag, to stock up on washing powder and toilet paper.

Hemingway’s provides Tai with whites, and he loves whisking over to Moore Wilson’s in his gear, feeling professional. And when Jo—who he’s categorised as a ‘scary lady’— teaches him to make the next day’s lunch each night, from whatever’s to hand, he begins to like her a bit.

And Jo, watching Tai learn what he has to do, fit in with the others, do his homework, bides her time.

IV.   

Then at the beginning of the second week, towards the end of service, Firefly phones in.

Talks with Gracie briefly, on the desk line. She darts through to Tai in the office, gets him to pick up the phone, and hurries back to the floor.

Then Jo hears Tai shouting.  Focuses on plating the mussels in front of her, puts them on the pass. And puts her head round the office door. Tai’s slumped in the chair Rebecca brought in for him, looks up at Jo and glares.

They both speak at once.

—What’re you looking at?

—You OK?

Tai leaps up and pushes past Jo. She follows him to the back door.

Watches discreetly as he leans against the outside wall, fumbles in his pocket and pulls out a joint. She steps forward. Holds out her hand for the joint.

—Not here. Not now.

—I’ve finished work. Finished my school work.

—Not here. Not now– What’s up?

—Nothing.

He tucks the joint back in his pocket.

Distract him, Jo thinks. She gestures to the City Radio Station.

—That was a while ago now.

He gets what she’s saying. He’s moved on, his life’s changed. Jo sighs. She’s moved on, too. Her life’s changed. Wonder what Vita’s doing? Distract him. Wonder what he’ll say if–

—How did you know that Vita camps at City Radio? A guess?

—That snotty bitch–

—Hey. Don’t talk like that–

—And it’s all her fault.

—All her fault what?

—That Firefly’s come out–

Aha. It’s happened. Somehow via Vita. And Tai doesn’t like it.

—That’s Firefly’s decision. If it makes him happy–

He unties his apron (often leaves it on all evening, loves his uniform).

—I’m going home.

—Check in with Gracie then.

—You’re not the boss of me (bundles his apron in his fist, then remembers he’s to fold it properly, shakes it out, and folds it precisely).

—(mildly) That’s right, you’re finished for tonight. I was confused, because you’re still in your whites. But I know Gracie’d like to know.

He flings himself back inside. Jo calls after him.

—Night!

And then looks back at City Radio. Thinks about Vita. Has an idea.

 V. 

The three of them go to Firefly’s place, to watch Firefly’s news on cable. Tai’s mostly silent, trails around after Gracie and Jo, when Gracie shows the place to Jo. In Firefly’s bedroom, Jo throws herself on the huge bed.

—WOW. The three of us could sleep here and there’d still be room!

Gracie leaps  beside her, both of them laughing. Then Jo sees Tai’s face. It’s shifted from grumpy to CLOSED. But his mouth opens.

—Stop it– Firefly’d be pissed off–

Jo jumps up, pulls Gracie to her feet.

—Supper time. News time.

So they drink hot chocolate, and eat cheese and tomato on toast, and while they wait for Firefly on the news, Tai softens a little and shows Jo all Firefly’s kitchen gear, very classy. She helps him make his school lunch, praises his new skills (Finn’s been giving him knife lessons), and as they tidy up, feels the atmosphere relax enough to suggest her idea.

—After school tomorrow, I thought you could make up a little special delivery picnic. You confident enough for that? Come up with some ideas, and put it all together?

She can see he isn’t too sure.

—I’d be there of course, to help–

There’s a shout from Gracie. Firefly’s on.

VI.   

On the other side of the world, Firefly’s another person than the one they know. Seated in front of a bank of microphones, in a suit and a new haircut, he’s impressive. Looks like he owns the world. Very matter-of-fact, a poster man for all those poster men: Marlborough Man, Southern Man, American Express; and just a hint of Jockey. And with an impressive quiet dignity.

—Oh, isn’t he wonderful? (Gracie) Aren’t you proud he’s your friend, Tai?

Tai tries to play it cool, nods, eyes fixed on the screen. Not a word, the beginnings of a tiny smile.

Then the inevitable question from a journalist.

—And is there someone special in your life?

—Yes.

—Will we get to meet him?

—Not tonight.

Back to the sports presenter.

—What an extraordinary man. And he’s left us all wanting more. Look out for that memoir.

Gracie clicks the remote and the image fades.

—O wow. Whaddya think?

Tai’s NOT happy.

—I think he’ll never come back. I’ll never see him again.

Quick as a flash, Gracie and Jo are with him. They calm him down, gentle him to bed (school tomorrow) and promise that if Firefly doesn’t ring very soon, Gracie will track him down.

VII.  

Tai seems slow and vague the next afternoon, so when he’s finished his work Jo’s surprised to see him appear next to her, looking alert.

—That special job for me today–

—Oh. I thought we’d leave it till tomorrow. Give us time to bounce back from the excitement.

But they talk about it, the kinds of breads available, the possible fillings, how bread isn’t actually necessary, ideas about a little pie, salads, cheeses and sweet things.

—You give me some ideas, and make it look good, and I’ll prepare the more complicated things.

—Who’s it for?

—A secret, until you deliver it. A surprise for someone.

—Rebecca–

—I’m not telling.

She gives him a couple of recipe books.

—Read them when you’ve finished your homework.

—I’m not ten. You’re not my mother. I’ll manage my homework.

Gracie takes Tai home early, and they attempt to track down Firefly. No luck at any of the possible numbers. They email.

VIII.

Vita’s very surprised when a tall young man in whites appears at the door of her office, carrying a covered basket. Even more surprised when the tall young man says

—Here to nick your laptop. Jo insisted.

She looks him in the eye, gives a rueful smile, and holds out her hand.

—Tai. I’m sorry I was such a tit.

Tai hands her the basket, and she places it on her desk, holds out her hand again. He gets it. They shake hands.

Such a tit. Several times. I wasn’t coping well. With anything.

Tai shrugs. Decides to be charming.

—No worries.

He lifts the lid on the basket.

—Jo thought you’d like a picnic tea. And they’re flat out so she sent me over.

They look inside. Tai explains the various dishes, and his part in the preparation.

—It looks wonderful. Shall we have a wee share of those petits fours?

So they do, and Tai asks about the photograph by Vita’s computer and she says it’s her son. Vita introduces Tai around, shows him a couple of the studios. And she gets Jo’s cellphone number from him, so she can thank her. As she says to her therapist later that evening, all in all she handles it pretty well. But she wishes Jo hadn’t sent the basket over. The therapist waits.

—I felt cranky about it. Pursued.

—Pursued?

—Yes.

—You like Jo.

—Yes.

—So why do you feel pursued?

—I want her to leave me alone.

—And sending Tai with a picnic is not leaving you alone?

—Of course it isn’t.

—But you got her number from Tai?

—I have to thank her–

—You could have sent a message, a note, and you’d be done, wouldn’t have to think about it again?

—You saying I don’t want to be left alone?

—I’m asking–

Vita can’t quite get there.

—I’ll think about it.

She still hasn’t told her therapist where she’s living.

IX.

Tai returns to Hemingway’s down the fire escape (“Let’s try your old route”, said Vita) and through the back yards. Takes a look into ‘his’ shed on the way, can’t now imagine  how he spent so much time there. Wonders about Firefly, overwhelmed with anxiety that things will turn to custard if Firefly doesn’t return.

He goes from charming to bratty in the minute it takes to cross the yards.

His report to Jo is terse. And he slopes off to do his homework (maybe). And Jo takes a fresh bit of gum.

 X.

Gracie’s very happy to reach her day off. Stretches out in bed, wonders what she might do. She’s a little worn from this house-sitting gig: Tai’s not a pet, or plants, and having him at work as well has been demanding.

Then, here he is in the doorway, clasping that dorky thermal bag Jo’s given him for lunches.

—I’ve slept in. Can you drop me at school?

Every cell in Gracie’s body says NO. But somehow, out of her mouth falls YES.  So she ferries him up Taranaki Street in that enormous Jag.

And after she drops him, fights off the impulse to swing onto the motorway north. Foxton straits in no time at all? Taupo for lunch? But she goes home. Puts on the coffee. And the phone rings.

XI.

The police try the school counsellor first. No, she said.

—I have no relationship with him. He came once. Became surly fast. Stayed ten minutes. Doing fine in his classes, no reason to take any further interest.

So then they ring Firefly’s. And get Gracie on her day off. Tell her that Tai has a connection to ‘a person of interest’ in one of their investigations. Gracie explains. Firefly’s out of the country. She’s in loco parentis. Up to Tai whether he wants to talk. But sure, come over this evening once he’s home from work, meet him and see what he says.

So Gracie drives to Hemingway’s to pick up Tai. Jo teases her.

—Really getting into the mother thing, babe? How’s Lisa?

Tai drags Finn out to see the car. Finn’s suitably impressed. Everything’s calm and happy.

And Tai seems unfazed when Gracie mentions the police.

—You don’t have to talk to them–

—I know.

—Know what it’s about?

He shrugs.

—I’ll be there, so they can’t pressure you–

He shrugs again.

And when they come, a brisk and friendly young man and a woman Gracie thinks Jo would enjoy, they’re immensely respectful of Tai. Who has showered, is beautifully dressed, not a hint of the street boy.

The brisk and friendly young man starts off.

—Tai you’re done nothing wrong, nothing at all. We’ve come to ask you for help.

He gives a general outline of what they’re looking at, a group who prey on young people, how one member of the group killed himself when the police approached him, but there are others. Then gets to the guts of it.

—We understand you know some of these guys (the guy who topped himself, Ivan, a couple of others). Had a little talk with your mate, Sam– We’d like to talk with you too, hear your side of the story.

—Nah. Don’t think so.

— Take your time. Think about it. We’re here if you change your mind.

Gracie gives Tai an encouraging smile. He gathers himself.

—I’ve put all that behind me.

(Go Tai! thinks Gracie.)

—Sure. Here’s a card. Just in case.

Then the woman breaks in for a moment.

—Seen Sam the last few days, Tai?

Quick as a flash, looking her in the eye.

—Nah.

—We seem to have lost track of him–

—Could be out of town–

When they leave, Tai says nothing. Doesn’t want to talk with Gracie. Texting rapidly, takes his phone to his room.

Gracie droops on the couch. Calls Firefly. Again can’t get through. Emails him. Rings her mother, apologises for not seeing Lisa this week.

By midnight, Gracie and Tai are fast asleep. Neither of them hears Firefly return, make himself at home, and hit the sack. And he doesn’t stir when Gracie and Tai sleep in again. Gracie drives Tai to school, then goes to work.

XII. 

Vita sees Gracie and Jo head-to-head out the back of Hemingway’s when she waters her geraniums, NOT doing well on the fire escape. (She forgets to water them, and they’re battered by the summer winds.) O fuck, she thinks, I haven’t rung Jo. So she whistles, a piercing wolf whistle. They don’t seem to notice. So she whistles again.

Gracie’s telling Jo about the visit from the cops. And defending herself.

—He’s 14. Working his phone. Why would he want to hear me ask if he’s OK? And he was fine this morning.

The second whistle comes just as each of them takes a breath. “Well”, says Gracie. “There’s an expert. Let’s ask her.” They wave to Vita, beckon. She points inside, shouts.

— See you soon–

It’s noisy in the mornings here, the wind’s blowing a gale, and they don’t hear her. She waves. They wave back, getting the message, they think. But Vita  runs back inside, she tells the techie she’ll be ten minutes, wedges open the fire-door and starts down the stairs.

Jo and Gracie are gone already, and she picks her way across the yards and in Hemingway’s back door. Straight into Norman.

—Where did you come from?

She points over her shoulder, introduces herself.

Jo’s busy at the stove, and Gracie’s disappeared. Jo shifts her gum to her cheek.

—Vita! Finn, look after this for a moment?

XIII.   

Firefly wakes up eventually, heads straight for Freyberg, gym-and-swim. Late lunch with lawyer, home for many calls. Another  brief nap, then  round to Hemingway’s for late dinner.

XIV.

In their break before service, Gracie and Jo perch on the City Radio fire escape with Vita and speculate about Tai. Of course, if he doesn’t want to talk that’s his choice. But if he does talk, will it be dangerous? Is he in danger anyway? And what can Gracie and Jo (and Rebecca) do to help? Vita has no idea.

—It could be just two or three yukky guys. A little local group. Wait for Firefly to come back.

They speculate about Tai’s family, what will happen to Tai if Firefly decides to live overseas. Vita has an obvious suggestion:

—Something we can do, very quietly, is track them down, using the info Tai gave on his IRD form. Unless he’s lied, of course.

To Jo, this is a dodgy.

—Isn’t that a bit invasive? Why not ask Tai?

But Gracie’s excited. Something She Can Get Her Teeth into. A distraction from the problem that she’s going to need a new house-sit soon, that she’s in a kind of limbo, and with not enough down time (she tells herself) to sort through her options.

—It’s no different than you and Rebecca checking out his IRD form–

—Rebecca’s an owner, of course she looks at an employee’s IRD form if she wants to.

—But that isn’t why you looked–

— I looked because I cared. I thought he might be a rellie.

—So. I’m going to look because I care.

Vita watches them both, Jo chewing away, Gracie right in her face. Feels something now unfamiliar, affection. And, what a surprise, a surge of interest and commitment. At the back of her mind, she has questions about Firefly and Mop. This is the moment everything changes for her.

—Hey, you two. We all care. I’m a journalist, with no scruples about investigating Tai. I’ll do it.

The others look pleased.

—But I can’t do it from here, piggy backing on the neighbours’ wi-fi, or using City Radio’s. How’s your spare room Jo? May I use it for a while?

The others go into shock. Jo stops chewing. Gracie does her excellent blank look: behind it, computing whether she’ll miss out on being a hero, if Vita takes over, if she’ll miss out if Vita and Jo are under the same roof. How to do a fast save? Aha, this could be it.

—I’ve still got access to a whole lot of law school database subscriptions– Maybe I could help?

Her reservations blown away by Vita’s suggestions, Jo takes out a tissue, takes out her gum and wraps it in the tissue. Watching her, Vita smiles, and replies to Gracie.

—Of course.

And Jo finds her voice, and replies to Vita.

—Of course. Though it’s a bit of a mess at the mo. I’m working on our Sevens costumes. Labiates. You could be one too–

She isn’t sure what else to add, so she high fives Vita and then Gracie.

And then Norman leads Tai and Finn out of Hemingway’s back door. Tai and Finn each carry a stock pot and a wooden spoon. Norman lifts his arm and drops it. And Tai and Finn bang the pots with their spoons. Vigorously.

As one, Jo and Gracie give them the finger. Everyone laughs.

And then Jo and Gracie hurry back to work.

_______

NOTES

Nah. Breaking out the beers. Go Wales!

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