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November 2008

Nicholas Hogg
Snow still blazed the upper slopes, streaking down the shaded ruts and gulleys like melting ice cream.

On the dusty road below, a dirt track cut between the peaks and glittering lake, four cyclists pedalled. Three women and one man, panniers laden with food and camping equipment, supplies to last the 100 kilometres ride to Te Anau. In all this space and sky, they were tiny.

Jack felt he was already part of the distance. He allowed the girls to ride ahead, falling back from their chatter. Confirming the beauty of the landscape was as inane as confirming the sky was blue.

The road rose, and instead of working to keep the pace, Jack slowed, coasting to a stop on the dusty track. He heard Greta call after him, and waved them forward. ‘Just visiting the little boy’s room.’

He watched the beetle-like helmets trundle on, the sun glinting off handlebars and spokes. He kicked the bike onto the stand, careful to balance the weight of the panniers against the camber of the road. He looked again to see the girls were out of range. Then he unzipped his shorts and pissed onto the verge.

Maybe it was the pressure of the seat on his genitals, or the blood pumping from his legs that gave him an instant erection. Or simply the thrill of cycling with three women.

He had planned to ride this remote stretch of New Zealand road alone. Cycling from the top of the south island, he had enjoyed rolling up at Backpackers unencumbered, being single. He could breeze in and breeze out, tell the same jokes to a different girl each night, then ride on in the morning.

But after a chance meeting with two Swiss girls in a Queenstown Youth Hostel, he changed his mind. Well, he changed his mind when he met one Swiss girl. After two weeks of touring, Inga was tanned and toned. When Greta suggested to Inga that Jack should join them for the leg to Te Anau, her eyes sparkled. Then they both laughed. ‘So, we shall be a foursome,’ Inga said mischievously. Greta fetched Elaine from the next room, and Jack was introduced to a blushing Texan girl who hid her attraction to him with questions about bike components and tyre tread.

But right now, standing in this postcard scene, erection in hand, Jack was not thinking about Elaine and her sweat patches. He thought about Inga, the bra strap over her bronzed shoulders. It was only the sensation of being watched by the mountains that stopped him ejaculating onto the grass. And the flock of sheep, suddenly a woolly audience, gathered to stand and watch Jack zip up his shorts.

‘What are you looking at?’ he snapped.

• • •

The girls had pulled over to take photos of the lake. ‘Hey, slowcoach.’ Greta focused her lens, snapped Jack skidding on the dirt. He stopped long enough to complain it was too early to rest. Inga agreed. ‘If we want to camp by the river tonight, we should get pedalling.’

This time Jack rode ahead, setting the pace on the steep hills. He felt like a schoolboy on a brand new bike, showing off to the prettier girls. On the first real climb, the first test hauling the cargo of tents, food and sleeping bags, a litre of rum, Jack popped his chain shifting from second to first.

When he jumped off and kicked out the stand, the bike toppled. Elaine came past, head down and working through gravity. Jack did not want her to stop. He did not need favours from the only girl of the three he did not want to sleep with. ‘Go Elaine. Show me how it’s done.’ She looked up, asked if he needed help. Jack shooed her along.

Greta and Inga came past as Jack hooked the chain back on the cogs. He swung his right leg over the panniers and kicked as though he were riding a horse.

• • •

On the crest of hill they stopped for a drink. A herd of horned and shaggy cows cantered over to where they lay on the grass. Shoulder to shoulder, the snorting, slobbering beasts crowded at the fence, studying the four cyclists sprawled drinking from water bottles and eating energy bars.

Inga stood, ripped a handful of grass and offered it over the fence. The entire herd skittishly backed away. ‘Cowards. Ha. You get my joke? Cowards.’ Greta shook her head. Inga threw the grass down and addressed the herd as though a class. ‘Well say something. You come all the way across the field and just stand and stare. What a life.’

Jack was laughing. So were Greta and Elaine. But Jack laughed louder, wanting Inga to see how she affected him.

‘You make me laugh,’ said Greta. ‘Always.’

Then what she did next nearly made Jack choke on his dry oats and banana. Greta stood, moved behind Inga at the fence, and looped her arm around her waist. She then smoothed her palm along her spine and spread her fingers in her hair. Jack felt like he had opened a bedroom door, and turned to Elaine, embarrassed. She smiled back nervously, raised her eyebrows and studied the blades of grass twisted in her hand. When Jack looked again, they were embraced in a kiss. Not a teenage mouthful, but the kiss of a loving couple, each certain how much they meant to the other.

Inga pulled away when the cows turned. They had heard the clang of the gate in the bottom corner. The farmer climbed onto the bed of a pick up and began tossing out hay bales. The herd stampeded, kicking up a cloud of dust as they drummed a gallop across the hard earth.

‘Now that is a sad life,’ announced Greta. ‘Stood in a field waiting for a man to bring a dinner of straw.’

• • •

They rode the last of the day into a headwind. A gale raced down the valley, forcing pedalling on the gentler declines. Each rode in their private thoughts, any conversation blown away by the breeze.

Jack was stunned. How could he not have known? The whole reason he joined the trip had been a farce. When Inga had joked about the foursome, she had meant him and Elaine, a girl becoming more grating to him by the kilometre.

Lower in the valley, the sound of the river replaced the sound of the wind, and the four scouted for a campsite.

Just as the sun dipped below the ridgeline, they pulled in behind a stand of bushes sprouting from the riverbank. Below was the stony wash, strewn with dead branches and rotten trunks.

Poles snapped into place, pegs hammered and mats unrolled, Jack set about collecting firewood. This was, he insisted, his responsibility. ‘Man and flame,’ he explained, ‘a basic instinct.’

‘He’s right,’ snorted Elaine. ‘How many women worked on the first bomb.’ Then she turned and stomped across the rocks to edge of the river. Jack detected a less than friendly tone to her Texan twang. Was she angry that Jack insisted they both pitch their own tents rather than share one? Had she worked out he had no idea about Inga and Greta?

Inga pulled out her towel and followed the other two down to the river. She turned long enough to firmly order, ‘No peeking.’

And it was not a coy invite to spy.

• • • 

Jack walked from where the girls were bathing. While the eastern peaks flared with light, the western range silhouetted against the orb of setting sun. It was cold, and would get colder. Jack first cradled a dozen large rocks onto the bank and arranged them into a ring. Next he clutched handfuls of kindling, snapping the dried and hollow boughs of fallen trees, long ago carried down the river and beached on the pebbled shore. On top of the twigs he dropped logs, trunks he propped against the bank and broke with violent kicks.

Shivering, towels wrapped around wet hair, the girls stepped gingerly across the stones, back to the camp where Jack sat rubbing his hands before a crackling fire. ‘You’re lucky I’m here,’ he goaded.

‘So that was the attraction of stone age man,’ retorted Greta, stood at the edge of flame in her white turban. ‘Fire making. Not the stinking beards and toothless smiles.’ Inga and Elaine laughed. They stood either side of Greta, towels perched upon their heads like three exotic Queens.

• • •

While Greta and Inga vigorously towelled each other’s hair dry, Elaine supervised the camp kitchen. Jack, insisting he was more than capable of cooking the risotto himself, bickered with Elaine on every aspect of the preparation, from the size of the chopped onions to the setting of the pan on the coals. When he pointed out that most top chefs were men and not women, he felt a small, yet hollow victory.

They ate quietly, just the sound of forks clicking against bowls, the occasional snap of the fire, and the background rush of the river. The glassy surface was darkening to the same ink blue of dusk, as though the sky itself were emptying into the valley.

• • •

Jack washed the dishes in the river, scouring off the grease with sand. He scrubbed hard to keep the cold from his fingers, then stopped to follow a line of sheep climbing the hillside across the valley. From here they were a stream of white dots flowing along a bleak and treeless ridge. Jack wondered where the flock would spend the night, and tried to imagine himself sheep, wrapped in a fleece skin, stood on a peak watching the universe turn. Maybe looking down upon three women sat close around the flames, singing songs and pointing at the stars.

• • •

Just after dawn the earth rumbled, juddering all four awake. Confused and afraid, Jack was first from his tent, gripping a dead branch. He watched a sheep truck rattle on the gravel road, yards from where they had slept zipped up in sleeping bags.

When Elaine saw the squashed and woolly faces penned against the bars, and then saw Jack in his underpants, brandishing his club of firewood, she almost fell over laughing. ‘Save us from the sheep Mr Caveman.’

A cloud of dust swept across the campsite. Jack was cursing, and got a mouthful of dirt. He dived back in his tent and dressed. He could hear the girls laughing, and shouted through the canvas, ‘So you only want me when you’re scared. Or need a fire started.’

• • •

It had been different when the sun was down. Around midnight a car had driven past the camp, slowing, then stopping altogether. All evening they had seen no other traffic, and it was that point around a fire where stories of death and horror are shared across fading coals, upping heartbeats and hearing, the wind in the grass a thousand ghosts.

The red brake lights had studied them through the dark like the glowing eyes of a predator. ‘Who the hell is that?’ asked Greta, her voice wobbling. ‘Why’ve they stopped?’ Elaine did not help. ‘A car load of hicks. Some inbred farm boys saw three girls riding by earlier, and followed us here.’

Inga had made a strange, involuntary whimpering sound, and Jack decided it was time for action. He pulled a branch from the fire and walked onto the track. To whoever was in the car, he was a silhouette marching with a flaming club. He only took a few steps before the wheels spun and the car vanished into the dark.

Back at the fire, Inga greeted him as a hero. Both Greta and Elaine seemed annoyed it had taken a man to calm their nerves.

‘No problem,’ Jack said sarcastically. ‘Anytime you want saving.’

‘Saving!’ shrieked Elaine. ‘It could’ve been someone stopping to ask for help. And you just scared them off.’

‘You’re the one who said it was car load of men looking for women.’

‘Men,’ Greta suddenly stated. ‘Thinking with their dicks. That’s what it always comes back to.’

• • •

Jack found himself defending all mankind for the rest of the evening. From waging war, to serial adultery, the fact there are four horsemen of the apocalypse and no women riding down the end of the world. He made matters worse calling on natural instinct, arguing that if it were not for aggression and desire of men, the human race would not have survived. After about half the bottle of rum, he stood up swaying, and dramatically claimed that every woman was ‘a hostage to her hormones.’

Elaine, who had been sharing the bottle, spat, ‘Jack. Jackass. That’s what I’m calling you for the rest of the trip.’

‘If I was the last man on earth, and you wanted a kid, it’d have to be mine. And your chemicals would let you know about it.’

Elaine told him where to go. Jack toasted himself before finishing his rum, shouting at the stars. ‘To the last man on Earth! Me and a million sheep!’

• • •

He dressed quickly and packed up his tent. He told the girls he needed to ride on, blow the cobwebs from his head, sweat out the rum. He did not apologise for being drunk, or saying what he had. Inga suggested he stop in an hour, and they could have brunch together.

The wind on his back, steep and winding bends, he dipped his head and let the back wheel slide out on sharper turns. He hooked his fingers over the brake levers, just in case a car swerved out on the wrong side of the road.

But he did not prepare himself for a lone bull. A horned roadblock, a ton of muscle, stood defiant on a blind turn.

He overran the corner, jammed on the front brake and flew.

Going over the handlebars, he felt like a trapeze artist in flight. But there was no other bar to catch, no sprung net to soften his fall, only earth and rock, a plastic helmet.

• • •

When he came to he had the sensation of concussion, which the crack in his helmet confirmed. But no time seemed to have passed. The sun remained high in the cloudless sky. The front wheel of his bike slowly turned, ticking as if clockwork. Jack reached out and stopped the motion. At least the bike seemed intact, with only a split pannier the obvious damage. In the tumble, pasta shells, powdered milk, and a bottle of ketchup had decorated the hillside.

Carefully, he stood, unbelieving he had escaped such a calamity without even a scratch. He dusted off his clothes, hauled the bike upright, thanked his body and bike for keeping him safe from harm, and climbed back to the road.

Jack guessed the girls had gone past while he was recovering from the tumble. Crash seemed too serious a word, and as he swung his leg over the saddle, set his foot again in the pedal, he laughed. He laughed at his luck, the blue sky, and the faces of the surprised girls he would shortly overtake.

• • •

Coursing with adrenaline, Jack rode hard on the gravel track, barely noticing the spare and barren hills, the roadside flowers that shivered in the wind. Head down, squinting from the dust that blew into his face, he saw the raw and slatted ribs of rotting hares, a lamb wandered from the flock and dead on a verge.

After an hour of pedalling he stopped above a ford, and scanned ahead for the girls.

Nothing. No girls. No cars, clouds or people. That deep, stellar blue at the edge of space, the chiselled peaks reflecting sun. Maybe they were further in front than he had guessed? He looked at his wet tyre marks from the ford, dark lines drying, fading out. Perhaps they had stopped to rest before the corner, and he had set off in front?

Jack waited. It was bitter in the wind, sat drinking from his bottle on the exposed hill.

He rode on. Cold and lonely. His thoughts spiralled. Perhaps the girls had grown sick of having a man invade their trip? Now Elaine knew he had no interest in her whatsoever, and never did have, he lost his purpose as a member of the tour. Had they abandoned him? No. Surely not. They were feisty, yes, but not cruel.

Jack noted the angle of the sun, the length of his shadow on the gravel track. He convinced himself happy. He must have been knocked out in the fall, and the girls, thinking he had sped ahead, would be waiting for him at the Mavora Lakes campsite.

• • •

Not a soul. Not another sign of life. Jack rode the last few kilometres through the forested track, praying now the girls would be camped with pitched tents, a crackling fire. He was unable to admire the pink skies doubled on the surface of the lake, the ancient trunks of Manuka clad in moss.

He rode past the swing-bridge, the empty picnic tables and campsites, along the shore until the boundary of the park. No girls. No other campers. And the day was dying behind peaks of deserted mountains, the jagged shadows advancing across the lake.

He rolled onto the grass by the lake edge. He did not put his bike on the stand. He let it topple to the ground. He squatted by water and saw himself reflected, a backdrop of cirrus flared on the mirrored surface, the first star of a long, lonely night. A night he would spend awake on his sleeping roll, watching the universe turn, the Milky Way fall from the sky.

• • •

He woke on his sleeping mat, wet with dew. The morning sun glistened in the grass, but Jack did not notice. He quickly packed, pushed his bike to the track and pedalled.

And he blocked the thought from his head. He repeated lines from plays and films, sang as he rode. He sang to the hills and the sky, the sheep and the cows. He sang to stop from thinking he was the last person in the world. It was a ridiculous thought, and he knew that. But as he rode, the solitary, tiny human in an immense landscape, that ridiculous thought was terrifying.

When he reached the turn for Te Anau, he saw his first house in two days. Although no one was in the garden, the windows were open, and a flatbed truck parked in the drive. Of course he was not alone, and the fact he dared think such a thought made him angry. He pedalled faster. Before checking into the Youth Hostel he would sit at a café on the lakeside, order an iced coffee, and a beer. And drink them with company. He would watch life happening, other people. Not this, a deserted road and the howling wind, a million bleating sheep.

• • •

It was a Sunday morning. Once Jack worked out what day of the week it was, he felt better about the empty highway. But his heart beat erratically, like a panicked bird trapped in his ribcage. From the start of the sealed road, past a handful of farms, no trucks, cars, or buses had passed. Maybe everyone was at church?

Cresting the final hill, and seeing the sunlit rooftops of Te Anau glimmering, Jack breathed deeply. His exhale wobbled with fear. Before turning from the highway into the town centre, he pulled up outside the Tourist Information booth. Glossy leaflets advertising paraponting and cruises fluttered from the desk across the footpath.


No one answered. The leaflets blew along the road. The sound of his own voice terrified him.

• • •

He pedalled on, past the sign that pointed to the town centre, past rows of smart wooden homes, pruned gardens bursting with flowers, bright green lawns. In one driveway a car was parked with the boot open. The front door was ajar, and a cool box sat waiting to be loaded. Jack stopped. ‘Hello?’ Next time he shouted. ‘Hello!’ Again and again. Until his repeated cries sounded through the empty streets like an echo.

No one came out of the house. Or any other house.

He followed the curving road to the hotels and hostels. He took sharp, shallow breaths, searching the emptied lobbies, the parked and vacant coaches waiting for passengers.

• • • 

Outside the Crazy Cat Youth Hostel, the accommodation Greta had booked for the four of them before leaving Queenstown, Jack dropped his bike, threw down his helmet, and hurried to the reception. Before going through the open door, he stopped, and listened. He could hear something, someone, rustling plastic, maybe rummaging in a bag. He looked about for a weapon, and then knew he was not going to kill the only other person on earth. Whoever they were?

He dived through the door into the reception. They were behind the counter, ransacking boxes of potato chips, chewing the wrappers off chocolate bars.

They were sheep. Jack startled the feast, and they panicked and trampled over one another to escape the room.

The first thing Jack saw, beyond the torn packaging and shreds of cardboard, was the phone. Then an opened newspaper. He checked the date. Yesterday. Next he picked up the phone and held the dead receiver to his ear. No dialling code purr. No static. Nothing. He rattled the receiver on the counter, and again listened. Silence. He dialled anyway. He dialled the emergency services. Nothing.

He did not replace the receiver, there was no need.

Then he heard footfalls in the street, a hundred or more. Marching? The Army? Yes, that was it. The town had been evacuated and the military were taking control.

And to think he had been terrified of his drunken toast.

He ran outside. He ran outside and stopped on the forecourt. He had refused to believe the world had been abandoned. Until he saw the huddled ranks in their thousands, each and every one a fleeced tunic, baaing and bleating, chewing grass and trampling flowers, bumping against him, shunting him off balance. He had to fight to keep his feet, kicking at their flanks and thumping away their heads.

All around him sheep were filling the streets, leaping onto cars and running through houses, standing on hotel roofs, in the windows of a coach. They were everywhere, flooding the town like a tide of wool, a sea of white, in which a man might drown.

© Nicholas Hogg