Mended with Gold

an excerpt

Chapter One

The first house Alex looked at had black mould creeping up the bedroom walls. Next was a place with a pump in the cellar because 'the creek floods in a storm, but it's nothing to worry about, mate'. Then came a house with a sunlit patio, glaring white, with palm trees in pots. Something about the light and dusty foliage reminded him of Laos and he backed out speechlessly, eventually managing a curt 'no thanks' to the bewildered agent.

Next came an apartment outside which a dog barked as tirelessly as a metronome, then a house that smelled of rot. Followed by a 1920s villa next to the local landfill. And then a house with a handsome young man asleep on an old Chesterfield in the sunroom.

Alex paused in the open doorway, briars from the overgrown garden catching in his hair, the roar of sea and wind loud in his ears. A lot of old houses in New Zealand had these sunrooms. They were like glassed-in verandas; bright, warm places. They didn't usually contain a sleeping beauty.

The sleeper was in his twenties, thin, with tangled dark-brown hair and pale skin. He was gorgeous in an angular, surprising way, with long eyelashes and a wide mouth. He breathed quietly, at peace, cheek pillowed on one hand, giving Alex the intimate sort of view he would get if they woke up together in the morning. If he was bloody lucky, that was.

Sleeping beauty wore a too-big sweater patterned with green and beige snowflakes. He was young enough, and handsome enough, that he was probably wearing it ironically. Some of Alex's students dressed that way; deliberately dowdy, deliberately geeky, knowing it only made them cuter. Alex's eyes scanned down. Took in faded black pants that were spattered with--blood?

Alex took a step backwards, heart beating faster, before taking in other colours--pale blue, canary yellow--and realising that blood wouldn't show up on black anyway. It was paint. A house painter? An artist? If the latter, he probably thought photography was only for selfies and not really art. His feet were bare, but by now Alex knew that didn't necessarily mean he was a vagrant, as it would have in London, New York, or Toronto. Shoes were often optional in New Zealand, and in a beach settlement like this one, they were probably more optional than ever. There was something about this sleeper, though, that suggested poverty. His bony wrists spoke of meagre dinners, and the soft skin under his eyes had the bruised look of the terminally exhausted. Alex recognised it all too well from the mirror.

Nonetheless, it would have made a fine photograph; the sleeping man, lips parted, vulnerable, a shaft of afternoon sun hovering above him like a visiting god. There was something at once mythic and commonplace about him. He was a modern Endymion, down on his luck, ugly Christmas snowflake sweater and all. Ideally, he'd be naked. The flowery upholstery of the Chesterfield had faded to soft greys, like tumbled clouds. A disintegrating paper lantern hung from the ceiling. The lighting would be tricky, with the sun like that and the subject in shadow.

Alex had a camera; his favourite old Canon, with a standard lens. He'd been planning on taking pictures of the house. He itched to take a shot now, but for portraits of people, he always asked, and to ask would be to wake the sleeper and ruin the shot. This was one of those moments you let go by then remembered ever after at three in the morning. At least, this would be a beautiful image to conjure with in the small cold hours.

But who was this young man? Had he broken in to steal something and, finding the place empty, decided to take a nap? Was he a vagrant? According to the estate agent, the house had been empty for months. The door to the sunroom hadn't been jimmied, and although one of the windows at the far end was cracked where the bushes outside had grown too close, there was no obvious break-in.

In a way, it was none of Alex's business. It wasn't his house. Though the moment he'd seen it, nestled on the hillside, half hidden by long grass and overgrown shrubs, he'd felt the same internal jolt as when he'd come across sleeping beauty. Something inside him had said yes, oh, yes.

The house was small, and old, and weathered. It had once been painted blue, and was now a speckled grey. 'Not flash' the locals would say, but its box-like, 1950s simplicity was appealing, unpretentious. It hunkered down in the wind, gazing north through a row of identically sized rectangular windows. Getting out of his car, the roar of the wild west coast had filled Alex's ears, the sky misty with salt spray. He'd waited a minute or two for the estate agent, then felt like taking pictures of the house, and found his way to the sunroom.

On the dusty floorboards, next to the Chesterfield, lay a dog-eared paperback. An intruder who broke in to read? Alex took in the front cover and gave a huff of disbelieving laughter. For it was The Thief's Journal, by Jean Genet. He put a hand over his grin, as if the young man might see it and think he was being laughed at. But it was so unexpected, so perfect, that it was difficult to stop smiling. So, this sleeping beauty liked literature. Gay literature, too. What colour would his eyes be? He looked European. His eyes could be blue, brown. Green would be stunning.

From far away, just audible over the rush of wind and sea, came the drone of a car engine. Alex pulled out his phone. Four twenty. That would be the estate agent with the keys. Finally. He glanced again at the sleeping face, the tumbled hair. Should Alex wake him? Tell him to go? Stop him getting into trouble?

But something made him turn away. Perhaps it was just bone-weary reluctance to talk to anyone he didn't have to, even an attractive young man. Perhaps it was a kinder impulse, because there was something about those thin wrists, tatty sweater, and tired face that made him feel that here was a person who would rather not be found.

Alex picked his way back to the road through the brambles and bleached grass, and slammed his car door several times, as loudly as he could. On the final slam, the agent drew up, apologising, tugging his tie and smoothing his hair uselessly in the wind. Out here, against the wild hillsides and the flax bushes, the agent's blue business suit seemed a bit ridiculous. Alex smiled, shook hands, made all the usual noises. His thoughts kept returning to the sunroom, warm and golden. Sleeping beauty couldn't be a thief. In this house, there was nothing to steal.

The agent opened the front door and Alex went in to the echoing living area. There was an internal door to the sunroom to the right. The internal door was glass, covered by a faded red-and-white gingham curtain. It was impossible to see whether the sleeper was still there or not, but Alex thought he heard a creak and the quiet scuff of bare feet.

He turned his back to the sunroom door. The living room was long and narrow, north facing, bright, stale from being shut up. Bare boards, not polished. The walls were a dirty grey-pink, the windowsills scurfy with peeling paint. Of course, there was no radiator; all New Zealand houses were cold and miserable in winter. At least, there was a squat wood burner in this one, its thick glass door cloudy from years of flame and smoke. To the back of the living area was an open-plan kitchen, with a stainless-steel sink, and cracked brown linoleum. Three empty jam jars stood on the countertop, gathering dust.

Everything was dusty, and yet, the room had charm. It was warm and light. It felt safe and private, a place he could relax. The view was dramatic, with the bowl of the valley and the road disappearing between towering hills to the north. There were only four other houses to be seen, all shabby, all facing the sea, which was only a few hundred metres away. If he stood at the windows and looked left he could see the pebbled beach, and the turquoise chaos that was Kahawai Bay, the surf breaking white on black rocks. What would it be like to be here in a winter storm, with a fire blazing in the old burner?

He inspected the rest of the house--two bedrooms, both tiny, one at the front and one at the back. Both rooms would take a double bed, but not much else. He could, of course, get a single bed, but that idea was so sad he closed the bedroom door and went into the small washroom. To shower, he'd have to climb into the old claw-footed tub and use a rusty shower hose that was set way too low. There was a Victorian-looking toilet with a chain pull. An empty airing cupboard. A tiny laundry area by a warped back door. The door opened out onto a small flat area choked with weeds, amongst which stood a modern plastic water tank and a disintegrating woodshed.

By the time they got to the sunroom, it was empty except for the ancient Chesterfield. The agent stood beneath the paper lantern, into which insects had eaten a delicate filigree, and talked about internet options. Alex nodded, not listening. He wanted to get that old lantern, put a light in it, see how the shadows fell. The room had already lost the sun, because shiny-leaved shrubs had grown up outside. He'd cut them back hard, when the place was his.

If. If it became his.

Because it would be stupid to take it. In traffic, it would be a forty-minute drive to the studio in Wellington. The closest shop was fifteen minutes away down a road like a switchback. He shouldn't buy a house because a trespasser with good bone structure and a taste for Genet had happened to fall asleep in it.

No, but he might buy it because it felt like a harbour in a storm. The wind buffeted the place again. The house creaked, in a way that was already familiar. He didn't want to leave.

The agent locked up and they stood on the cracked concrete step at the front, looking out over the flax and brambles and the restless sea. The light had turned red, drenching the rugged hills in kirsch.

"So, about the internet," Alex said.

The agent was battling with his tie, which kept flapping in his face. "It's dial-up or a satellite service, like the farmers use. No fibre, out here."

"Mobile reception's patchy, eh?"

"It's the hills, I'm afraid. It's all right at Makara Beach. That's the next bay along, where the settlement is. Or you could go up top." The agent waved a hand at the closest hill, which was nearly perpendicular. "What do you do, Mr. Cox, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I'm a photographer." Or I was. These days I'm more of a fraud. "I teach a photography course at the local Tech, too. I'd need that satellite internet." Yeah, because the stock libraries can't wait to get my next picture of a dandelion clock blowing in the wind.

The agent nodded, gaze on the glowing hills. "It's a lifestyle choice, this place. I have to tell you, the road closes sometimes. There are slips. Whole settlement gets cut off. It can feel very isolated in the winter. Very wild in a storm. Takes a particular kind of person to want all that." His voice was taking on a resigned tone. Alex could see him thinking 'no sale'. "Lovely spot though, isn't it, on a day like this?"

That evening, Alex sat in his neat rented apartment in town and ate chili prawns with snow peas. They'd taste better if he'd spent the day sanding windowsills in the sea air. He rang his folks in Toronto and told them about the place. Mom said it sounded beautiful and he should do whatever made him happy. She asked about his work, about New Zealand winters, and when he might visit Canada again, and all the time her tone was pleading, 'Tell me you're all right, tell me you're content, tell me you're better.' Dad asked about drains, piles, and water supply, then told him to go with his gut.

He Skyped his old colleague Marilyn in London. Once, he'd called her a friend. These days he never knew what to talk about, but he owed her several calls, and finally he had something to say.

Her eyes were bloodshot, with black smears where she hadn't taken off last night's makeup. Her hair--currently blonde at the roots and black at the tips--was all anyhow. She wore a silky robe, bright with Japanese-style cherry blossoms.

He told her about the house.

"It's a midlife crisis," she said. "Seriously, don't buy a house in Tinpot, New Zealand. You'll regret it. Get a convertible instead."

"I want the house."

"Geez, and I thought Wellington City was the ass-end of nowhere. Could you get any more remote than this beach place?" She yawned. "It sounds worse than Saskatoon."

"That's why I love it."

"What does whatshisname think?"

"That's over. What's that got to do with it anyway? This house is for me."

"You'll meet someone eventually and he isn't going to want to live in a tin shack with hillbillies shooting each other over the--" She glanced away. "Well, you know what I mean. You realise it's eight o'clock in the morning here. Saturday morning." She yawned again, hugely.

"There aren't any hillbillies. It's mostly civil servants and old hippies as far as I can tell. It's a civilized backwoods. Big night, last night?"

If he'd still been in London, he'd have been out with her. Would probably now be nursing a hangover of his own. Except, these days, he didn't drink. Because last time he'd left a bar he'd ended up cornering a jaywalker who'd nearly stepped out in front of a bus, yelling until the youth was crying and someone called the police.

Marilyn shrugged, waggled her head to indicate 'yeah, sorta big', and winced. "What if you spend all your money doing this place up then hate it and can't sell it?"

"I won't hate it. I wish I was there right now."

"Are you sure you're not running away? Geez, darling, are you sure this isn't all part of the post-traumatic stress?"

"I'm fine." Though I may have lied slightly to the psychologist. "I'm just old and tired. I'm forty-five. Don't you get sick of the divas and the dawn starts and the shitty hotel rooms? I want a more regular life. I like it out there."

"You're at the peak of your career and you're shooting suburban weddings and corporate away days. Listen, if you won't buy a convertible, for God's sake, take a younger lover. You know you have that Jeffrey Dean Morgan thing going on. They used to fall all over you. Pick someone sweet who'll worship you. It'd be more fun than saddling yourself with a log cabin in Hicksville."

"Someone who'll what? Do you know how awful that sounds? I'm buying the house. It's pure, out there. Clean. The light's amazing and the locals wear gumboots to the shops. They wear those Christmas snowflake sweaters in April. No one cares."

Sleeping beauty had popped into his mind again. Why did that feel like a good omen? He didn't believe in omens. If he told Marilyn, she'd really think he'd lost it.

"It's people of Wal-Mart, Alex. It's a slippery slope. Next, you'll be buying a onesie. You'll never have sex again. You buy this house, you're doomed."

Next morning, he made an offer.