Authors: Owen Marshall
Short story writer and novelist Owen Marshall has written, or
edited, twenty-one books to date. Awards for his fiction include
the PEN Lillian Ida Smith Award twice, the
Short Story Prize, the American Express Short Story Award, the
New Zealand Literary Fund Scholarship in Letters, Fellowships
at the universities of Canterbury and Otago, and the Katherine
Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in Menton, France. He received
the ONZM for services to Literature in the New Zealand New
Year Honours, 2000, and in 2002 the University of Canterbury
awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. His novel
won the Montana New Zealand Book Awards
Deutz Medal for Fiction in 2000, and in 2006 his short-story
Watch of Gryphons
was shortlisted for the same prize.
Owen Marshall was born in 1941, has spent almost all his life
in South Island towns, and has an affinity with provincial New
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National Library of New Zealand Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
Marshall, Owen, 1941-
Drybread / Owen Marshall.
A VINTAGE BOOK
Random House New Zealand
18 Poland Road, Glenfield, Auckland, New Zealand
Random House International
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London, SW1V 2SA
Random House Australia (Pty) Ltd
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New South Wales 2061, Australia
Random House South Africa Pty Ltd
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Corner Boundary Road and Carse O'Gowrie
Houghton 2198, South Africa
Random House Publishers India Private Ltd
301 World Trade Tower, Hotel Intercontinental Grand Complex,
Barakhamba Lane, New Delhi 110 001, India
First published 2007, reprinted 2007
© 2007 Owen Marshall
The moral rights of the author have been asserted.
This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Design: Elin Bruhn Termannsen
Cover photographs: Matthew Trbuhovic
Cover design: Matthew Trbuhovic, Third Eye Design
Printed in Australia by Griffin Press
For William, Lydia and Sophie
The Maniototo is burnt country in summer, and the bare,
brown expanse of it has a subdued shimmer. Theo wished
he'd brought dark glasses. Even with the air conditioning
on, he could feel the sun's heat on his arms. The hills had
no bush, and lay like a gargantuan, crumpled blanket,
wheat coloured and with the shadows sharply defined, and
that shimmer of heat at the base.
Near Drybread are three baches in a gully running
back into the Dunstan Range. Not the easiest place to
find. A note had been left for Theo at the paper which
ended, 'Don't say anything and come alone.' It wasn't as
mysterious as it sounded. He was covering a story about
a woman from Sacramento, Penny Maine-King, who had
fled back to New Zealand with her child in defiance of
a Californian court order that awarded custody to her
estranged husband. Now she was faced with an arrest and
a warrant for the return of the child issued by the Family
Such cases had become quite common, but the editor
and chief reporter expected added interest because the
couple had been in one of those American television reality
shows. They'd been voted out early in the series, but even
such C grade celebrity was enough to excite a good many
readers. The barrenness of some people's lives is appalling.
Theo's friend Nicholas said two-thirds of the paper's readers
could be gassed and they'd never be missed.
The chief reporter, Anna, hoped to link the pair's
problems with the pressures of the programme. 'See if we
can get the two stories to come together,' she said. 'They'll
feed off each other: the whole television thing and then
the marriage collapsing because of the stress, and she doing
a runner back here with the cute kid. And originally she's
a Kiwi, you know.'
Theo couldn't see the fascination of it, and in fact the
television angle had proved something of a fizzer, but it was
the sort of investigative story senior journalists are expected
to tackle. It protected him, too, from humdrum rounds
of local politics, agriculture or geriatric health. And the
husband was rich, at least by New Zealand standards. Anna
said people like to read about the rich being in the shit.
The greater the fall, the more enjoyable the contemplation
of it by those who are lowly themselves.
Penny Maine-King's directions took him into the
Manuherikia Valley and finally to that isolated gully: a
cottage, the original part of which was sod, and the addition
grey, unpainted wood. It was half hidden from the road
by an overgrown macrocarpa hedge, the green defiantly
incongruous amid the drought. There was no lawn, no
garden, no fence to complete the boundary the great hedge
pronounced, no gate even, and unseen sheep had grazed
to the small concrete front step, and shat in the shade the
house made in the everlasting afternoons. A water tank was
fed from the roof. The long-drop dunny was twenty metres
or so from the house, and a little higher on the slope. A
blue hatchback was parked behind the hedge, and a red
trike lay on its side in the yellow grass. So dry was the dirt
that Theo could see cracks like lightning strikes, as if the
ground had given up the ghost.
The other two cottages were hundreds of metres away,
equally humble, weathered and pegged into the landscape
by a succession of extreme winters and summers. They had
no garages, and no other cars were parked beside them.
Theo had arrived at the unglamorous part of Central Otago:
far from lakes, or ski fields. What could you do here in the
gold miners' exhausted gully, except shoot rabbits, wander
the bare hills, or shut yourself up in one of the three coffin
Theo could see into the house through the wooden
frame window beside the door. In its modest length the
room went through the transition from kitchen, dining
room to lounge. The bench, sink and woodburning stove at
the far end, the wooden table and two chairs in the centre,
and then a leather sofa and a single, soft chair in front of
a schist stone fireplace. A barefoot boy of two or three lay
asleep on the sofa, and a woman sat in the big chair with
her head back and eyes closed. The boy had nothing on
above the waist: his chest was smooth and pale, and there
were bracelets of sunburn on his upper arms. The woman
wore yellow shorts, a white top, and her long throat was
exposed as she rested, or slept. Penny Maine-King.
For a moment Theo stood there, conscious of the sun's
heat on his back, like an iron on the material of his shirt,
and aware of the passing intimacy possible with strangers.
The boy's nipples were barely more than smudges on his
skin, and the mother's thighs were smooth, undimpled.
On the worn, uneven carpet beside the sofa was a plate
with a rim of crusts. So much exact, external detail, so
much vulnerability, yet he knew only the public facts of
the experience that had brought them to the place and
their predicament. It's what he had become accustomed to
in his work: the sudden, close professional focus on people,
the establishment of a rapport that enabled the scrutiny of
some part of their life, and then the disengagement.
Theo moved so as not to be visible at the window when
his knock roused Penny. She came quickly to the door and
she seemed not at all drowsy. 'You found the place okay?'
she shook hands and led him down the passage, just a few
paces, and out of a back door directly aligned with the
front one. 'Do you mind sitting out here for a while?' she
said, having already decided the matter by her movement.
'My boy's sleeping in the main room. It's cooler there.
The sod walls keep the heat out.' A wooden form with
a back abutted the side of the house by the door, and a
kitchen chair stood close to it in the short, dry grass. The
shade on that side of the house reached just a few metres
up the slope.
'A good solid seat,' he said.
'It's a pew from the old Anglican church at Dunlathie.
The church was sold to make a private house, and my
mother bought some of the seats. She took two for the
farmhouse verandah and this one ended up here. You can
see the edges have polished up from the grease in the wool
where the sheep have a good rub against it.'
'So this is where you come from originally?' He sat on
the old church pew in the gully, and wondered how Penny
Maine-King had got all the way to Sacramento and crap
television — and back again.
'My parents farmed not far away, and my father bought
this place cheaply for any single worker we had from time
to time. It's my inheritance, you might say.' The dry tone,
and the slightest grimace of a smile, mocked what she
said. 'Anyway, I'll get you a beer and we can get down to
business. No fridge here, I'm afraid.'
'That's okay,' Theo said.
So they sat on the shady side of the old place, still hot
enough, she on the kitchen chair, he on the church pew
with its weathered surfaces and sheep-oiled leading edges,
and she told Theo what she hoped for from him. There was
a single, desiccated plum tree on the slope, and a pair of
paradise duck, each distinct in the plumage of its gender,
flew twice up and down the gully, giving their discordant
cries. There was the faintest smell of dry sheep shit, gorse
and isolation in the drowsy air. Theo remembered the
healthier and larger plum tree behind the garage of the place
he'd lived in when married. The mind has a predilection
for cross-referencing which takes no account of comfort.
Penny said she had liked his first article, thought it fair,
and that she was willing to give him more of the personal
story as long as her whereabouts remained secret. What
she wanted was sympathetic publicity that would help her
lawyer get a stay of the warrant for the return of the child.
She needed time to work out something with the boy's
father. 'I don't give a stuff what happens to me,' she said,
'but Ben's going to have the start he deserves.'
Theo wasn't sure how he felt about her. She was
completely open about them making use of each other,
and though he understood that, there was a hardness in
it too. His response to her appearance was ambivalent as
well. There was little indication of her breasts beneath the
white top: she wore no make-up and her hair was roughly
pulled back into a makeshift stub of a pony-tail. Her
face had a determinedly scrubbed, plain look. Only her
teeth, even and very white, and her smooth legs, hinted
at a Californian concern with glamour. She looked him
in the eyes as she talked, with that unsmiling, no bullshit
expression direct women have.
'Once the story builds there'll be all sorts of people
out to find you, some waving money,' Theo told her. 'And
I don't know about the legal situation. Maybe I can be
forced to say where you are. I'll have to find out all that
before I can make any promises.'
'I can put you in touch with my lawyer,' said Penny.
'Anyway, the sympathy should always be with the mother
and child, don't you think?'
'It's the law you've got to deal with, though. If the
sympathy is for mother and child, why didn't you get a
better shake from the American court on custody, instead
of just access?'
She sat forward on the kitchen chair in her urgency
to explain the deficiencies of the Californian judiciary,
her inability any longer to afford lawyers' fees in the
States. There was the slightest sheen of sweat high on her
forehead, where her hair was pulled back. She was talking
about her husband's use of his money against her when
the boy appeared at the doorway, still dulled with sleep.
Giving Theo only a glance, he walked over the dry grass to
his mother, and she took him onto her lap. Penny didn't
stop talking, or make any introduction of the boy, but an
arm held him, while her other hand moved fondly and
absently over him, smoothing his soft hair, running along
his bare shoulder and midriff, flexing his sturdy legs. It
seemed a reassurance as much for her as for the child, this
establishment by contour of the texture and solidity of her
son. This familiarity with his physical presence. 'I'm using
my mother's maiden name here,' she said. 'Penny Kayes.
People won't make the connection, and I married overseas,
but don't include any of that in the paper.'
'You know you can't hide out for long. These things get
'Christ, you don't have to tell me that. This has been
going on for weeks, here and in California. You think I
want to be stuck away in a shack without power and phone?
Hello! What I want from you is the right publicity and I'll
give you enough stuff to make a good story.'
'Fair enough. I'll do what I can,' he said.
'I'm not even so much interested in money, though I
need it,' said Penny. Her son was leaning back on her, wide
awake. He looked at Theo steadily, his eyes blue in a face
devoid of expression.
'We don't pay, but we reach a hell of a lot of people.'
'Okay then, fair enough,' said Penny. 'Do you want
something to eat?'
'No thanks. I better get back to Christchurch asap.'
'I'll give you the lawyer's number, and an email address
I can access when I go into Alex. And if you give me your
number I can ring you from there if necessary.'
'Haven't you got a cellphone?' asked Theo. 'Wouldn't
that be simpler?'
'We're pretty much out of range up here,' Penny said.
He went through some of the questions he'd listed
for himself, getting stuff about American life, American
marriage and American separation. Something, too, about
a Kiwi woman coming back to get a fair deal in her own
country, and finding herself on the run. Before leaving he
walked up the slope to the wooden long-drop, but although
Penny and her son were still sitting outside, he didn't go
into the old dunny, just stepped behind it and had a piss
into the flattened grass and bare ground where sheep had
been resting out of the sun. The ground was so dry that
his urine rolled like marbles in the dust. He liked the
sense of being in the open, yet with complete privacy. He
could see up the slope to a ridgeline that ran back into the
steep hills. It reminded him of his boyhood in the hills of
North Canterbury, and of going out to the farms with his
father, who'd owned stock trucks. Something about quiet
land attracted him strongly: something about looking out
and seeing natural country with no people there at all. He
realised there was vanity in that, an unacknowledged desire
for human uniqueness within the landscape.
Afterwards Penny and her son walked from the house
to the car with Theo. Penny shook hands for the second
time that day, and she said to the little boy, 'Say goodbye
to Theo.' It was the first time she'd used his name.
'What's his name?' Theo asked. He should have been
able to remember: he'd used it in the article and she'd
mentioned it earlier in the day.
'What's your name?' she said, using the boy as
'Ben,' the child replied.
'Well, goodbye, Ben,' Theo said.
He took the Dansey's Pass route on the way home. It
was a gravel road stretch, but if you pushed on you saved
time by not going through Palmerston and Oamaru. Once
he reached the main coast road, which he knew well, he
could drive, and think of other things. The Maine-King
story was a good one, especially if Penny remained hidden.
Theo needed to understand the legal situation though,
not just for accurate coverage, but to protect himself.
Penny Maine-King could look after herself well enough,
it seemed to him: it was the boy he felt for. Poor little
bugger bounced from place to place and parent to parent,
and having no comprehension of the reasons for it. When
Penny had gone inside to get her email address, she'd left
Ben sitting on the kitchen chair. No appropriate small talk
occurred to Theo. He had no kids. Ben said nothing, and
sat with the dunny and the plum tree on the slope behind
him, and tried to pretend he was alone and at ease by lifting
his arms up and down and making soft, aeroplane noises.
Poor little bugger. Penny Maine-King's email address was
at paradise.net.nz. 'Yeah, tell me about it,' she said, and
they had parted on that irony.