“Why would you move all the way out there?” Anna’s question, delivered with a perplexed frown and a peculiar sharpness of tone echoed the sentiments of nearly everyone whom Fran had told of her plans. Apparently, the town-dwelling citizens of Christchurch considered ‘The Spit’ to be at the far ends of the earth rather than an easy 20-minute drive from the central city.
Truth be told, Fran hadn’t considered moving there herself until a random chain of serendipitous events presented her with the opportunity. Her lease came up for renewal at her apartment in town, a friend of a friend’s tenants unexpectedly handed in their notice at a house on The Spit, and she had to admit she was finding the three flights of stairs at her city apartment challenging after spraining her ankle. The opportunity to move into a house by the sea was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise dull and dismal year featuring bad health, job loss, and a lacklustre love life.
“I feel like a change. A change is as good as a holiday.” Fran took the old Dole banana carton with the easy lift handles out of Anna’s arms and pushed it into the boot of the car, wedging it in tightly with her foot before carefully lowering the boot door. She could feel the next-door neighbours’ eyes on her from their level-two window above the carpark but she didn’t look up. They’d only spoken once in the entire eighteen months she’d lived here, and that was an awkward exchange at the communal letterboxes at the front of the complex. Their meeting had only happened because they’d each misjudged the right time to check for mail; the eight residents of the block generally went out of their way to pretend they were the only people who lived there.
Anna, Fran’s best friend since they met when they both worked for an insurance company in the city, watched dubiously as Fran locked the apartment door for one last time and hid the key under the mat for the property manager. She felt no sorrow or dismay in leaving her modern and stark Ivory Tower, a property that had grown to feel too much like a prison in a very short space of time. “I hope you haven’t isolated yourself too much by moving out there, Fran. People won’t want to drive all the way out to visit you.”
Fran chuckled as she climbed behind the wheel and pulled her car door shut. The car interior smelled like dust, mustiness, and household objects that had sat in one place for too long. She smiled up at Anna through the open window. “It’s 20 minutes from here, Anna. I’ll see you on Thursday for dinner. We can go for a walk on the beach.”
“I don’t think I can make it. You know my car has been playing up and I’m only driving short distances until I can afford to get it fixed. Mostly I walk, as everything I need is so near in the city. I think you’re making a big mistake, Fran.”
The problem was it did feel a long way from the city, Fran mused as she drove the unfamiliar roads towards her new home. Perhaps it was the knowledge that the city was behind her, or the fact that one needed to drive across a series of oxidation ponds before crossing a bridge over the tidal estuary that made it seem as though The Spit was an island rather than a straggly, narrow addendum to the mainland. Flocks of vivid blue and orange pukekos pecked and strutted in the gravel along the side of the road, oblivious to the cars passing close by, as Fran drove over the bridge and turned at the roundabout in her approach to The Spit. The Spit itself was long and narrow; only eight houses wide with a two-lane road in between, and Fran already knew she could see the estuary from her new front door and the sand dunes of the Pacific Ocean from her kitchen window.
“You’ll soon start to feel as if you’re living on an island out here,” Brian with the grey hair and freckled arms said cheerfully, as he popped over from next door to introduce himself and mow her front lawn without being asked.
“Come in for a coffee,” said Layla at the corner house as she threw a ball for her lolloping, panting orange dog in the field beside the estuary. “We’re a friendly lot out here on The Spit.”
“Can we come in and get our ball?” The two small children from the house across the road called through the gate, all suntanned skin and wide, white smiles as she unhooked the latch to let them in. “Mum and Dad said to come over later for an island BBQ. Everyone will be there. Any time after 5.30.”
“Oh you’re new to The Spit!” the bubbly, vivacious-sounding hairdresser exclaimed when Fran called to make a booking for a long overdue haircut. “I can give you our new customer special. Welcome to paradise island.”
Sometimes in the evenings, Fran would stand at her front door and gaze out across the tranquil estuary to the twinkling fairy lights of the city. She would find herself feeling sorry for her friends in their slab and concrete buildings with nothing but a view of their neighbours’ windows from their own front doors. She was surprised how quickly she had acclimatized to her new life. She had a tan now to erase the white pall of city life from her skin and it seemed to her that her arms had been this brown forever. Her lips permanently tasted of salt and sunshine, the soles of her feet were hardy and tough from walking around her scrubby lawns barefoot, and her hair was thick and full with golden blonde highlights from the sun. Her ankle injury was completely healed and she’d even begun to run, short jogs along the estuary path that made her feel vigorous and healthful, without any trouble. She’d picked up some work too, freelance work she could do from home, and the gloomy loneliness of last year was just a faint and distant memory.
Funnily enough, she didn’t lack visitors to her beach house. They complained of course, every last one of them, about how far away she lived. However, she had more visitors now than she ever did when she lived in the middle of the city. They would all stand on her front door step and stare enviously out at the sun sparkling on the waters of the estuary just a few metres away. This must be a nice place to live they would murmur as they reluctantly climbed into their cars to drive the 20 minutes back to the city. The only one who didn’t come was Anna.
Fran had visited Anna twice in the city in the two months since she’d moved to The Spit. The first time, Anna had thrown her arms around her and said how much she had missed her, even though it was only a week and a half since Fran moved and they had talked on the phone or commented on each other’s Facebook posts most days. Fran perched on the edge of Anna’s white leather lounge that she refused to allow her cat to sit on and sipped from a glass of Marlborough chardonnay as Bravo TV played without the sound in the background and the shouts of young men leaving the New Regent Street bars drifted through the partially open windows. Anna talked about her boring job, her lack of focus, and her wish for something exciting to happen while Fran nodded, smiled in the right places, and offered small snippets of uplifting best friend encouragement.
The next time Fran visited, after asking Anna several times to drive out to The Spit without success, there was a popular play on at the Isaac Theatre Royal across the street from Anna’s apartment and it was impossible to find a park. In the end, Fran parked at the Casino three blocks away and trudged through the grey, grimy streets in a pair of jandals that she’d forgotten to change out of before she left home. Anna was moody and sullen as she opened the door, complaining about the stuffy heat and the noise of the theatre patrons as they lubricated their throats at the bar next door before attending the play.
Fran sat on uncomfortable corduroy chair with scratchy wooden arms, along with the cat, as Anna had just had her leather lounge suite steam-cleaned. It was cramped and a little uncomfortable and the cat was shedding all over her skirt, but that was okay. Anna wanted to talk about her new man, Matthew. He was some kind of Project Manager or Administrator for the new function centre in the middle of town and from what Anna was saying he seemed to spend a lot of his time ordering people around.
Anna glanced at Fran’s inappropriate footwear and told her that they couldn’t go out for dinner and it was entirely Fran’s fault. Instead, they ordered an Uber delivery of Thai food and Fran drank iced water while Anna finished off a bottle of wine. At the end of their visit, Fran was pleased to escape the confines of the city and drive all the way back to The Spit where the sea breezes blew gently and birds called their strident goodnights from the estuary.
Fran adopted a greyhound. She’d always wanted one, had always been attracted to their elegant form and sweet, deer-like faces. The greyhound placement people were ecstatic on Evie’s behalf, exclaiming over how lucky a dog who’d spent her whole life in the racing kennels was to find her forever home at the beach. Anna wasn’t impressed when Fran told her, turning up her nose so vividly down the phone line that Fran could see it in her voice. “They kill cats,” she hissed. “They train them to chase furry things. Don’t bring her around here.”
“She doesn’t seem bothered by cats. Or birds. Although she did sniff at a hedgehog under the hydrangea bush last night before running away.”
“You’ll see. They’re vicious creatures. Don’t bring her here.”
Fran decided the best thing to do was not visit Anna again. Instead, she would wait until her friend finally drove out to The Spit to see Fran’s new beach home. She spent the weekend planting sunflower seeds along the fence line around her beach house and walking her greyhound along the meandering estuary path. She collected seashells too, curling fancies in varying shades of cream and white, and decorated the grass at the base of the birdbath in the garden with her enticing sea treasures. Fran’s sister, along with Fran’s young niece and nephew, had started making regular trips out to The Spit on long summer evenings or balmy Sunday afternoons. Fran smiled as she pictured the children’s delight upon discovering the ring of pretty shells.
Kerry, the woman who’d cut Fran’s hair and then invited her to a book club supper at her house at the end of The Spit rang to say she was at a loose end and did Fran want to go for a walk? Fran left her greyhound at home, as she could be a little too prone to stopping to check her wee-mails when out walking, which was fine when it was just the two of them. However, Kerry was a fast-walking, fast-talking woman and Fran decided Evie might be a smidgeon too laid back for such a walk.
They walked quickly along the estuary path as Kerry told Fran about her husband’s building job and of how they were constructing a gazebo in the backyard. Kerry’s backyard overlooked the ocean rather than the estuary and they planned to install gas heaters in their new shelter so they could use it all year long for alfresco dining.
On the way back to Kerry’s house, they met a man walking from the other direction with a springy, graceful greyhound of his own. Fran stopped to pat the dog as it checked its wee-mails and Kerry introduced the man as Eric from two houses down. By the time they continued walking, Fran had gained a smiling invitation from Eric to walk their dogs together and she was feeling a small sense of tingly excitement from the appreciative warmth in his smile and eyes.
The next time she called her friend, Fran was excited to tell Anna her news. “I love living here! I’ve met so many great people, my life is interesting again, and the view from my front door…” She ran her hand down the silky length of her hair and looked up as she stood in the doorway of her house, watching a seagull as it hovered with widespread wings on the buoyant current of a wind swell. “I’m better. Life is better. I’m so much happier here than I ever was in the city.”
“You’ve changed.” Anna’s voice was a viper snaking down the phone line. “You’ve got conceited and self-centred since you moved to The Spit.”
Fran was taken aback, shocked that Anna had taken her positivity so badly. So wrongly. However, she kept her voice steady and conciliatory as she quietly explained that she didn’t see her actions or words as conceited and self-centred but rather as contented. Again, she asked Anna to come visit. “We can drink wine and walk on the beach. You can stay in the spare room. There’s even a spa pool out the back. We can sit in the bubbles while we drink bubbles. You won’t have to drive home afterwards. It’ll be fun, Anna.”
“I don’t know.” Anna’s tone had settled into something Fran once again recognised but there was still a brittle edge to it. “Matthew will be here soon. We’re going to a new Italian restaurant in town for dinner. I should go. Bye, Fran.”
Fran didn’t bother to say bye, nor did she ask after Matthew. From what she had gathered from previous conversations with Anna, Matthew was the type of man who would refuse to ever let his future wife grow one solitary grey hair nor put on any weight, even after bearing his babies. In the meantime, he was sure to allow his knees to evolve into grotesque and shiny knobs beneath the cuffs of his shorts and make up for the increasing lack of hair on his head by sprouting abundant growths from his nostrils, ears, and butt crack.
Anna called only once more, to say that her car was fixed now and she’d dumped Matthew. However, she’d met an interesting new man who was taking up all of her time and her evenings and weekends were very full. Fran told her she was pleased for her, extended yet another invitation to visit her on The Spit, and hung up the phone with no regrets.