15. Heart on Sleeve

I.

Firefly comes in to Hemingway’s for a late dinner.

Gracie sees him at the door, runs out the back to tell Tai.

Watches him tamp down joy, feel fear, close his face. Buy time, as he puts on his apron and his cap. Watches him walk across the floor in his whites. She sees Firefly stand to greet Tai. Sees Tai avoid a hug and greet Firefly quite formally. Hears Firefly ask when Tai will be finished. Decides not to intervene. If Tai wants to pretend he’s still on shift, he has a reason. And then she thinks O Fuck. Is my house-sit over early? But Hemingway’s is buzzing and she has things to do.

When Tai’s disappeared out the back again and Firefly’s ordered, she goes over to say hello and congratulations on the coming out and welcome home.

He has to hug someone. So it’s Gracie. And no of course the house-sit isn’t over.

—Got a minute to catch up properly, Gracie?

She hasn’t.

—Maybe once you’ve eaten?

It’s one of those nights. And even with his back to the room, a couple of people recognise Firefly and want to say hi and he’s finished eating and ready to go before she has a moment. Then Firefly has a word with Norman, and makes his way out the back to Tai. And Tai isn’t there. So Firefly taps Gracie on the arm.

—See you at home, Gracie? I’d better catch up with Tai.

II.

Tai had slipped out almost immediately. Uniform off and folded. School clothes back on. Tomorrow’s great lunch abandoned in the fridge, in case Jo sees him leave, or the other kitchen staff. He’s panicking. He needs to talk with Sam.

Then can’t find Sam. Finds Ivan instead. Ivan at his nastiest.

—Been talking to the cops? Better not–

He grips Tai’s arm, twists it a little, pulls Tai towards him and makes a zipping movement across Tai’s mouth.

—Not a WORD. Or I’ll talk about you and Firefly.

Then a cutting gesture across Tai’s neck. Tai wriggles. Kicks. Ivan twists harder, uses his other hand to rotate Tai’s head closer to him, hisses into Tai’s ear.

—And you’ll disappear. Like that mate of yours.

He lets go. Stands back.

—And then those regular showers and healthy eating and designer gear and school and a job won’t mean a thing.

Tai takes off. Through Courtenay Place, round Oriental Bay and up the hill to Sam’s hut. It’s completely empty. Impossible to tell for how long. Knackered, and overwhelmed with fear and anger, Tai leaves for Firefly’s place.

III. 

Tai pours himself a vodka, cranks up the music. Tosses back the vodka . Dials Firefly’s cell. It’s off. Leaves an angry message. Has another drink. Texts Firefly. Then he starts throwing. His phone first. It flies over the back of the sofa without causing damage. His glass. Cracks the glass on a big artwork. The vodka bottle. At Firefly’s big screen. Twice.   A satisfying scratch down the screen the first time. The second time, he stands on the coffee table and the bottle shatters and a giant smear of flying vodka spreads across the screen.  Tai is peeing over the coffee table when Firefly walks in.

IV.

Firefly’s furious. Of course. But so is Tai. It takes them an hour or so to calm down, to clean up the mess. For Tai to throw up and be thrown into a cold shower. For a tentative reconciliation. For Tai to begin to tell the story, tucked in beside Firefly on the sofa. And for Firefly to get it, to add this to Ivan’s heads up, what he’s heard from Mop. And, of course, Firefly takes Ivan’s side. Mop’s side. His own side. Tai’s done well to keep his mouth shut.

But then Firefly makes a mistake. Tai says the cops have lost track of Sam, and he can’t find him. Could Ivan have made him disappear? Firefly’s response is immediate.

—Of course not. And Sam’s not your problem.

And Tai takes off again. Leaps to his feet, shouting, tears spilling down his cheeks.

—Of course he’s my problem! Fuck you, you’re just scared that you’ll get involved.

Firefly’s always a highly disciplined player. Keeps his cool.

—There’s no way I can become involved. You know that–it’s dangerous for you to be involved in the investigation in any way at all–

—Dangerous for you, you mean, you arsehole–

Tai flies at Firefly kicking him, drumming him with his fists. Firefly just stands up and grabs Tai, holds him close. Tai gives up on having any physical effect at all, goes limp. Then

—You look after me. Or I’ll tell the world.

Then he notices Gracie, motionless, just inside the door. And so does Firefly. And Tai hurls again. Abjectly. Miserably. Mostly bile.

—Night, says Gracie. And flees.

V.

Firefly’s up early. This morning’s gym is further tidying and heavy cleaning. And then he deals with calls. Word’s gone round that he’s back; everyone wants a piece of him. But there’s no way Tai will make it to school, and Firefly doesn’t want to leave the house while Tai’s there. So, as soon as he hears Gracie moving through the wall, he texts her: Cook you breakfast?

And there they are seated in the kitchen, that big and gorgeous space with stainless steel highlights, and Firefly cooking. (“For ME” says Gracie later.) And then eating (“Yes Jo, his omlet was very good; there was just one slightly awkward moment when he was surprised that Tai and I had made our way through all his best jams, would never have picked that he had a sweet tooth, thought it must have been the boy friend”). And they talk about the retirement and coming out press conference, and the flight back, and the boy friend back in London. And how’s Hemingway’s? Until they’re on a second cup of coffee.

—I don’t know how much you heard last night–

—Enough to know to leave you to it.

—Tai’s got some difficult things to face. And sometimes he lashes out, lies and accuses. Makes it more bearable for him–

—Mm. (What else could she say?)

—I heard the police came.

And Gracie tells him that story, and he listens closely, laying what she says alongside Tai’s version.

—So Tai hasn’t followed up?

—No. Not as far as I know. And he hasn’t talked about it with me.

And then Firefly explains that he’s home for a wee while, couple of weeks max, before some telly work in England, and he isn’t sure what to do about Tai. Explains there is passport problem, and the informal legal relationship between them is a problem too, though maybe that could be sorted out if Tai could come over for a holiday, if Firefly’s away for longer than expected. Tai seems happy to have Gracie around and would she, could she, consider continuing for a few months? Maybe even the school year if necessary? And Gracie explains about Lisa, and that she couldn’t bring Lisa to Firefly’s place and look after her and Tai as well as work. And they decide to leave it at that for now, think it through a little more.

VI. 

Down the road, Vita wastes no time. Nor does Jo. She fast-prepares her spare room, beautifully, leaps into her dad’s old ute and hoons along to City Radio to collect Vita and her gear.

When Vita discreetly shows Jo her living arrangements—it’s a busy morning at City Radio—Jo’s shocked. By the old Lilo and very old sleeping bag (to be left “for when I come back”) the contrasting pristine pillow and beautiful linen pillowcase (dropped into a black plastic rubbish sack for transport), by the cardboard boxes and nooks and crannies that have provided Vita’s ‘home comforts’ for the last months. No wonder Vita didn’t think she needed transport. All she has is her little backpack, a small-and-battered wheeled suitcase, her laptop and the rubbish sack. Vita’s life, except the laptop, goes on the ute’s tray. And it takes up very little space. And to Jo, it’s very sad. Then she remembers.

—What was it you dropped down the fire escape, that night you arrived?

—The suitcase. Just as well I’d strapped it.

And later in the day, finally, Vita tells her therapist where she’s been living. And they talk a little about why she feels ready to move on. And it’s tricky, because there are some things Vita still can’t articulate.

VII.

And Gracie comes to sleep on Jo’s couch for a few days, a research slumber party, among the Sevens costumes. (She’s received an offer from London University, has told her mother she doesn’t want to take Lisa, is exhausted by the ongoing conflicts and welcomes the distraction of Tai). After Hemingway’s closes that night, she and Jo walk home together. They stride along, both eager to see Vita.

And when they get there, Jo and Vita hang on Gracie’s every word about Firefly’s return.

—The smell was awful. Fourteen year old angst and feet and vodka and vomit and piss, even though they’d cleaned up most of it before I got there.

—Tell us again what they were doing (Vita).

—I think Firefly was restraining Tai.

—Or embracing him?

—Maybe.

—And what did Tai say again?

Gracie repeats herself.

—You look after me. Or I’ll tell the world.

—Tell the world Firefly doesn’t look after him? Or tell the world something else?

—It was a threat. But then he threw up again. And I was overwhelmed by the smells and the intensity of it all. Embarrassed.

—And you and Firefly didn’t talk about that bit?

—No. What could I say?

Jo breaks in.

—Well, if it was one of us, you’d have said heaps. Starting with “What was all that all about? What’s the story?”

—I don’t know Firefly.

—You don’t know Vita either, really. But you’d have asked her.

I might not.

—Come on, of course you would.

It’s Vita’s turn now.

—Gracie, I don’t want to rain on your parade here. But I’m a little suspicious of Firefly.

She starts that counting-on-her-fingers thing again.

—One. I saw Firefly with Mop. Two. We know that Tai’s been sexually active with men. Three. There’s an active police investigation into a group of pedophiles and Tai’s been asked to talk about his involvement. Four. Tai’s threat is ambiguous. Five. Firefly’s trying to shift his responsibility for Tai to you. Six. He’s leaving the country. Seven. Without Tai.

VIII.

Down the road, Firefly has guests and Tai plays with one of his presents, in his room. (The other one, a gorgeous black leather jacket, draped carefully over a chair.) Life’s almost normal.

 IX. 

Rebecca and Jo always have a giant harvest festival. They preserve. They dry. They freeze. Together, and with enormous pleasure. This year, they arrange one episode of a series on Jo’s rare Sunday off, at her place. While Vita and Gracie work their way through their researches.

Jo wanted to cancel, because she hasn’t updated Rebecca about Tai, and isn’t sure she wants to. Yet. But she’s also disoriented: Vita’s sudden decision, Gracie in the apartment as well, it’s all disruptive and she quite simply wants her mother.

By early Sunday evening the drier’s filled with early pear rings and whirring quietly, basil and tomatoes are stacked in the freezer. Jo and Rebecca finish wiping down preserving jars full of apricots tidily, and jam jars containing blackberry jam. Rebecca’s had enough.

—Supper Jo. What’ve you got?

—You’ve gotta be kidding.

—You’ve got guests. You must’ve thought about it.

—Surprise. I haven’t.

Rebecca’s amazed. This is a first. Jo shrugs.

—Put the jug on, Mum?

And she pops a stick of gum in her mouth and disappears into the next room. Where Gracie and Vita have googled and databased and hacked all day, with some assistance via complicated communications involving a throwaway phone and a couple of trips to a cybercafé. Have they found anything, and can she introduce Rebecca to what’s happening, and would they like a cup of tea?

And Gracie’s response is:

—What’s for supper?

—I made you breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, sent out for dinner. I made fifty-three bags of tomatoes, three dozen jars of apricots, twenty-seven jars of blackberry jam. I’m off duty. Check out the cupboards and the fridge. It’s your turn.

Vita leaps to her feet.

—Let me.  Sorry Jo. We’re a bit obsessed here. Come on Gracie. Let’s shut this down.

—And can we tell Rebecca what you’re doing, now?

—Of course– You reckon, Gracie?

Gracie comes out of her research fug, takes a close look at Jo. Hmm. Jo’s chewing hard. Feeling left out. Wants Rebecca there for support. Maybe. Wants some acknowledgement. Of course. Gracie leaps up and hugs Jo.

—Babe. Of course. You sit down and rest and we’ll bring you something. Something delicious. You and Rebecca. Delicious food. Delicious story.

X.

Rebecca of course has known that Something Is Going On. Rebecca doesn’t ask questions, though she longs to know how and why Vita’s staying here (at last?!) and why she and Gracie are so hard at work. But concentrates on the harvest and a lovely day with Jo, is used to Jo being almost silent when she focuses on food.

And Rebecca doesn’t ask questions through the update that follows. As soon as Vita starts the story, Rebecca covers her unfinished supper with her napkin, and puts it aside.  She’s heard most of Vita’s story from Jo of course, but is glad to hear it directly. Vita’s more fluent than she was, less emotional. Every now and she pauses. And they all wait quietly for her to start again.

Then Gracie summarises the Tai details they’re all familiar with.

And then the bombshell. Gracie starts:

—You tell them, Vita.

—You sure?

They know how to work their audience. Jo makes a Come On gesture. Vita leans over and takes a piece of paper from printer, hands it to Gracie, who hands it on.

—Tyrone McKay died, aged six weeks, in Adelaide. Somehow—and identity theft’s been hard for a few years now—somehow, sometime, Tai became someone else.

Jo and Rebecca look at the bit of paper that summarises the process that Gracie and Vita used to reach this conclusion. Rebecca gets there fast.

—So his parents gave him the false identity, if it’s an old one?

—Maybe. Or the people who pretended to be his parents. Maybe.

—But it must have been in place before he came to stay with his gran.

—No idea.

—Do you know anything about where he lived before he came over? Who with?

—Not yet.

—Are you going to ask Tai about it?

—Not sure–

Jo watches Rebecca, sees and admires her capacity to cut to the chase, and her care for Tai.

—What should we do, Mum?

—I think someone should talk to Tai.

At the end of the evening, Rebecca embraces Gracie, and then Vita. And again does that thing of smoothing Vita’s hair, on each side. One. Two.

—I’ll take Tai out of town, see how it goes. Can I tell him the bones of your story if it seems like a good idea at the time? You can say no.

Vita does her imperious thing for a nanosecond, before her mind catches up and her body tells her it’s OK.

—Sure. And tell him I’m happy to answer any questions he has.

Rebecca takes Vita’s hand for a moment.

—Anything I can do, let me know. Any time.

To Jo, delivering Rebecca to her Prius, Rebecca says just one thing.

—Look after yourself, darling.

Jo watches her leave. Walks back inside to get some more gum.

XI.   

Rebecca offers Tai some Saturday work, coming up the coast with her in the ute, to get harvest produce. She chooses her moment, pops in after his Hemingway’s shift, when he’s out the back doing homework, ignores his quick shuffle of a game into his bag. Just the afternoon, she says. I need a sleep-in.

It’s a gorgeous trip along the coastline. The blueberries are at their best; they pick some and buy some ready-picked. Rebecca buys sacks of spuds and onions, some pumpkins, cases of tomatoes. Tai lifts and carries and chats. Rebecca helps where she can. They get an ice-cream, walk along Te Horo beach a little. And Rebecca talks about her childhood, how she came to the coast with all the other orphans, how the sea seemed to her, how she comes back every year, and adds to the memories.

—But most of all, I think of my little sister, who was frightened when we reached the sea. It reminded her of our boat trip from Europe, brought back the fear. So most of the day we spent here, every year, she’d cling to me.

—My little sister did that sometimes.

—I didn’t know you had a sister.

They keep walking, reach the ute, turn for home. And, around Paekakariki, after a long silence (the only music in Rebecca’s vehicles is her own voice),  Tai begins to talk, and doesn’t stop. Until Tai’s story reaches Wellington, about the same time that they do. Silence falls again, as the ute barrels along the waterfront and into town.

Rebecca takes Tai home for dinner (preceded by a shower). Reveals that she already knows about his false identity. And about the visit from the police. Explains how: Vita, Gracie, Jo. Waits with his shock. Listens to his anger. Offers to drop him at Firefly’s if he wants. Sits with his exhausted tears. Hands him a soft blanket. Knows not to touch him. Is glad when her cat Feufingers jumps on Tai’s lap and he pets her. Asks if she can tell him a story. Gets him a hot chocolate, offers him a little brandy in it (guess where Jo got that idea?). Hands him a second helping of blueberry crumble, and the ice-cream container so he can help himself (you’re a growing lad).

Settles herself with her hot chocolate and crumble, adds ice cream, pats her plump-ish self.

—And I’m a growing girl. But I take my pleasures where I can– Especially with such special company.

Sips the chocolate. Lifts her spoon, and starts.

—There’s a reason why Vita’s involved. Why she cares. A story. That she says I can tell you.

Tai nods, without enthusiasm. He’s so tired. But Rebecca wants it all out there.

—And you can ask her about it yourself as well, if you want.

Once Rebecca starts, Tai wants to hear it all. She sticks to the bare bones. By the time they’ve finished eating, the story’s over. And Tai’s eyelids droop. But in his eyes is a little gleam of hope: perhaps he is not alone, even, especially, if Firefly leaves for ever.

XII.

Jo and Norman take it in turns to enjoy the Sevens. This year, it’s Jo’s turn. About three stop-smoking campaigns ago, Jo made lavalava-type prints of rosemary, lavender, basil and lemon balm, on velvet silk for the rosemary, cotton for the lemon balm and lavender, light silk for the basil.   Those Sevens can be incredibly hot, so she’s designed full-length hooded garments for a maenad group called The Labiates—herself, Gracie, and Tai’s friend Lucy—to keep them all cool.  After refusing to be basil, Tai’s tagging along as Bacchus.

Jo knows she’s running out of time. She also knows she has to factor in time to help Gracie finish her costume (Lucy’s making her own very efficiently).  But after a killer Sunday brunch shift at Hemingway’s that leaves her longing for a smoke, Jo can’t settle.

Instead of sewing, she shoots hoops on her roof. Until she knocks a laden tomato branch to the ground. She stops, hangs up the broken branch so the fruit will ripen. And then the others arrive.

Gracie and Rebecca hoist the sun umbrella, Vita arranges chairs, cool drinks, some antipasto from the Matterhorn.

And Rebecca’s off, with as much of Tai’s story as he’s agreed she can share. Gracie’s amazed.

—Never heard of it. A woman giving her child a false identity so that his father can’t find him–And doing it herself.

—Ages ago, when Tai was little, before it became so hard to do. (Vita).

—And Tai isn’t even sure that her surname is Mackay too. And he has no idea where she lives now. Firefly tried to find her, a few months ago. No luck. (Rebecca).

Jo’s focus is different.

—So he’s a Mozzie, and his name was originally Tai, but we’re never going to find his father, and his whanau, because his mother’s entire family are in on it and have agreed not to talk. Ever. Even to him. There’s got to be a way. Where was he born?

Gracie:

—It won’t help to know where he was born if we don’t know when. Does he know?

—No.

—So he has no-one.

—The whanau?

—Nah, something not quite right there after his Nana died. Or after they won’t tell him anything– He’s not keen–

—But he’s got us.

—And his friend Lucy.

Vita:

—And Firefly. And we don’t know what that means–

XIII.

In the gym at Firefly’s place, Tai trails around after Firefly. He’s listless, doesn’t know where he is, what to do. He liked being at Rebecca’s, her calm motherliness, the quiet way she encouraged him to get in touch with Firefly to let him know he was eating dinner at her place. And things haven’t been the same since Firefly went away and came out, and since their fight. He misses the old Firefly, his affection, his attention, his reassurance. Then, from the bench press:

—Tai. Get with the programme mate. Or do something else.

—Like what?

—Whatever.

—Whatever– Whatever– Whatever– Whatever yourself.

—Fuck off–

—That’s what you want, isn’t it? But how the fuck can I fuck off when I don’t know where my mother is?

—Easy, mate. The door’s down the hall. The street’s outside. You know what to do.

Tai leans over Firefly just as he’s at full stretch. Gets right in his face.

—And you don’t want me to do it with you any more, do you?

Firefly ends the stretch and stands up, towering over Tai.

—So that’s what’s getting to you?

Tai backs off a bit.

—That’s why you don’t want me to come overseas with you–

—Tai, Tai, what am I going to do with you–

—You’re going to leave me.

Firefly reaches for a towel and mops himself. There it is. How to respond? He holds out his arms.

—Come here.

—Nah. You’re all sweaty–

Firefly grabs Tai anyway. He ignores Tai’s wriggles and kicks and carries him to the huge shower. Strips him off. Holds him under the shower. Joins him.

And in the big bed, afterwards, hears about Tai’s time with Rebecca. As Tai sleeps soundly beside him, Firefly works his way through the complexities, and makes a decision.

XIV.

Gracie and Jo hope it won’t be awkward when Tai comes in after school on Monday. Warn Norman that he might not be in. Firefly’s away again soon, they say, he may go home straight after school. But Tai arrives, same as usual. A bit grim until he’s had his gôuter. Even stays for the homework. His only comment

—Firefly’s out tonight.

When Jo offers him some treats for his lunch, he asks about almond macaroons.

—Why not? Didn’t know you liked them.

—Lucy does–

—Aha.

She raises an eyebrow.

—Give it a rest–

Your friend likes them too–

—Gracie?

Gracie? You know who I mean–

Jo blushes a little. Aha, got you, he thinks, but immediately feels a bit mean (where did that come from?)

—I could drop a couple over to her, too. (How does Tai know that Vita likes almond macaroons? He doesn’t.)

Jo isn’t wondering how Tai knows that Vita likes macaroons. She’s thinking will she tell Tai that Vita’s staying with her now.  NO. OK. Quick response.

—What about after school tomorrow?

XV.

Firefly lied. He’s turned down a dinner invitation. He needs some space. His day filled with interviews, meetings, physio. Not the night for Hemingway’s. Or anywhere. He snacks, instead, beginning to worry about his weight, for the first time ever. And waits for the morning in London, to ring Mop.

Mop likes Firefly’s plan (an extension of the earlier ‘in plain sight’ plan, with no mention of the sexual element of Tai’s relationship with Firefly). Firefly takes the first step immediately. Rings Norman. Gets Rebecca’s numbers.

—Planning a buy-out, mate?

—Nah. Need an accountant.

Jo hears Rebecca’s numbers as she plates up a flounder. (Yes, still the bone people menu.) Asks Norman who wants them.

—Firefly. Looking for an accountant.

Hmm, Jo thinks to herself, placing a piece of dill just so.

XVI.

So, the next day, while Tai delivers a box of almond macaroons to Vita at City Radio, Firefly enters Rebecca’s office. Settles himself in one of her elegant arm chairs, and accepts a coffee and shortbread at the precise moment when Vita lifts the box lid and says “Aaaaah. Like a cuppa and a share?”

And while Firefly lays out his income tax needs, the story about his long-time accountant taking maternity leave, and Rebecca responds, Vita and Tai make some tea and settle in her office.

—Rebecca told me to talk to you.

—You don’t have to.

—I know.

And Vita, fresh from a demanding session with her therapist, pulls herself from her lethargy, helped by the sugar rush from the macaroons. And tells him what he wants to know. Yes, it’s possible Sam’s been killed. But he could have disappeared himself because he changed his mind about the court case. Yes, she’s frightened what will happen if she speaks out about Spike and Mark.

And then, with the box and their cups completely empty–

—Tai, I have a question too–

He waits.

—Your relationship with Firefly–

—Oh shit, he says.

He leaps to his feet.

—I’ve been gone too long. Jo’ll be totally pissed– Thanks Vita. You’re awesome.

At the top of the fire escape, he pauses.

—Firefly’s awesome. Totally.

On the other side of town, Firefly gets to the point.

—So. I’m going to persuade him to talk with the cops. Support him through it. And find a long-term solution, a home for him.

Half an hour later, Rebecca shows him to the lift. And then asks him.

—What if Tai refuses?

The lift door opens. Firefly holds it open.

—We’ll look at that when we get to it. I don’t think he will.

XVII.

And it’s easy. Tai comes home after work with his Bacchus costume, made at school in his art class, with lots of help from Lucy. And he’s thought about Sam, decided that he probably has taken off.  He tries on his costume for Firefly, who admires it. They cook dinner together, and Firefly admires Tai’s new skills.

And, over dinner, Firefly lays out his plan. In a relaxed kind of way.

Explains he’d seen Rebecca about some accounting stuff, and how much Rebecca likes Tai. That she’s even offered to have Tai to stay when Firefly goes away again. And if that arrangement’s formalised, and the situation is explained to the right people in the right way, it may be possible to get Tai a new passport. And then, Tai can fly to and fro to be with Firefly and the boy friend—whichever boyfriend—every holiday. (“Wow. Awesome. Wait till I tell Lucy”—Tai’s keen to demonstrate that he has a life, too.) And just to tidy things up, maybe it would be a good idea to talk with the police about the guy who died, and the other guys associated with him.

So, SNAP, they take the card from under its magnet on the fridge and ring to leave a message. And get the brisk and friendly young man, who is working late. No worries. How about tomorrow?

And then Tai potters off to play some games, and a couple of hours later Firefly puts his head through Tai’s door and sees that Tai’s out cold, still in his clothes. Firefly tenderly takes off Tai’s shoes, covers him with a rug, and goes to make his calls to England.

________

NOTES

Yep, almost right back where it started from–

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