‘The Last Party on Earth’

A story by Alice Tawhai.

 

X felt a bit guilty to be arriving this late. Her friend N had been messaging her for the last hour. But the sky was still light blue, and she’d managed to find the right gate to the race track. She was nervous that her ticket might be the wrong one. ‘My friend has a horse truck,’ she said. ‘I have to meet her in the motorhome section.’ ‘You’ve got a general camping ticket,’ said the man suspiciously. ‘I know. So does she.’ ‘Well, I don’t really know,’ he admitted, waving her forward. ‘Go on. If there’s a problem, the next lady will let you know.’ But the next woman in the chain seemed to have no problem and slapped a sticker as blue as the sky onto the bottom of her windscreen. It had a big black M on it to signify that she was indeed to park with the motorhomes. ‘Turn left,’ she said, ‘and follow the people in the yellow hi viz vests.’ ‘I’m near the end, by the toilet block,’ her friend messaged her.
……..Of course she went around the long way. ‘You went the wrong way,’ said N. X wondered how she would ever find her way in this mass of camper vans. ‘Nice to see you,’ she said. How ya been?’ ‘Good. Rapt to be here. I’ve been looking forward to it for ages. It’s gonna be amazing!’ ‘Thought they might cancel it because of that virus,’ said X. N looked scornful. ‘I’ve heard it’s just like a mild cold. Typical media beat up. Anything to sell a story.’
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The section where they crossed the track had powdery black sand that stuck to her big toes as her jandals sank into it, reminding her that she was near a beach. ‘It’s what the horses race on,’ said N. ‘It saves their knees. You don’t want them racing on a real track all the time. This is a practice track.’
……..‘Can we go back for my asthma inhaler please? I’m really sorry, it didn’t even occur to me that I would need it, but I’m a bit breathless suddenly, and better safe than sorry…’ ‘Yeah, all good. We’ll go back.’ ‘Actually, you carry on. I’ll run back.’ ‘Can’t be too bad if you can run.’  ‘It’s not. Just a bit of back drip from my nose, I think.’
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When she finally arrived at the park, X gazed around; lost in sounds, sights and smells. Snatches here and there attached to her memory and became permanent, although not bound in any order of time. It felt amazing to be stoned at such a good party.
……..Spring maidens dressed in white sheets with white flowers in their hair wandered by, taking selfies with urbane boyfriends as they clicked their glasses of wine together. Unicorns sprang out from the crowd and disappeared back into it. People dressed for elaborate picnics in Arcadia had clearly robbed theatre wardrobes or the dress up sections of op shops.
……..A centaur had a forbidden six pack of beer under his arm. She wondered how he had gotten it in past security. Some people wore masquerade masks, and she saw birds and demons and pretty ladies.
……..The musician sat on an oval green lilypond of a stage in the middle of a small lake, her white dress flowing over the edge and into the water as she sat on a chair playing a golden lyre. Not my usual, thought X, but a lot like a song the wind might sing.  If I close my eyes.  When she opened them again, a few glow worms had started to illuminate the oak trees like soft earth bound stars. It had gotten darker faster under there.
……..Huge pink silk flags, shot through with purple and red, ruffled softly in the evening breeze as the crowd settled into the grass basin that ran from high to low; giving everyone a perfect view of the main stage. Blue sky took on a low magic sepia tone, and white clouds like jet trails moved diagonally from the ground upwards. It feels so magical, she thought. Twilight was always her favourite time.
……..‘They’ll have a vaccine soon, anyway,’ someone was saying. ‘They’ve already sequenced the genome.’
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It got dark slowly, until a moon full of cream hung in the sky; just short of being heavy enough to fall.
……..Coloured Chinese lanterns lit the darkness at ground level, stringing out in rows to illuminate the food stalls. One Love vegetarian food. Damsel’s Doughnuts. Hot as Hell curries. Hungarian. Jamaican. Mexican. The lines were longest where you could buy alcohol. Twelve dollars for one glass. Which was actually a cup. You could buy one and reuse it. They were collectable. An extra two dollars, but you got to take it home.
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A man in a black suit held a bunch of golden helium balloons with lights at the centres of them. ‘Ten dollars each!’ he was calling. He reached forward to offer one to X, but she shook her head, so he lost interest and turned his attention to the people coming behind her. She came to rest in front of a band playing some sort of traditional music Japanese while wearing pig masks. Two people close in front of her were dressed in holographic capes as they stood watching the brightly lit stage. Silver rainbows glinted in the darkness as X tilted her head back and forth. She could hear them talking in the break between songs. ‘I hear the US don’t rate it. They’re saying it’s all a conspiracy theory.’ ‘Donald Trump, he’d say anything. His nose grows every time he opens his mouth.’
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She found N and they wandered around together for a while. They decided to look for the toilets, but stopped short when they found them.
……..‘That’s the line? You’re kidding me, right? Let’s come back later.’ ‘Yeah, maybe between acts would be better, but I need to go now. It’s the downside of keeping hydrated. You carry on and I’ll catch up with you.’
……..The line snaked back and forwards along a maze of ropeways. X felt as if she was queuing for rides at Rainbow’s End. There’s a shorter one over there,’ someone was saying to their friend. X looked in that direction and moved to the far queue. It was shorter. Eventually, she got to the front, where a woman was standing, monitoring the paper towels that people were putting in the big bin next to her as they stepped out of the long toilet block trailer. ‘It’s a pity that you don’t get to go and listen to the music,’ she said. ‘Oh, I enjoy this,’ said the woman. ‘Lots of people contact. I love talking to people. And I’ll have a look around after my shift.’
……..A Middle Eastern woman in traditional dress skirted neatly around X, grazing her hip. ‘There’s not much room in here, is there?’ she said, indicating the line for the basins where they were packed like sardines up against line of toilet cubicles.  X smiled, thinking how some cultures managed to have clothing that allowed ample women to look incredibly gorgeous. There wasn’t much room where they were, no matter what size you were.
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‘It’s a pity that they had to cancel the remembrance ceremony for the Muslims killed in the Christchurch mosque shooting last year,’ someone else said. ‘Yeah, I’m surprised they were allowed to go ahead with this.’ ‘All those beautiful people, gone, just like that. Who does that, ay? Kills people just for the hey of it?’ ‘Small, nothing people who want to be big people, and can’t get attention any other way. Unable to feel anything for anybody other than themselves.’ ‘Good summary.’ ‘And he wasn’t even a New Zealander.’
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As she was climbing one of the paths up towards the top stages, X saw the girl in front of her stop and put her hands on her hips. ‘I can’t breathe,’ she said to her mother, her neck hunching slightly over her chest. ‘Does your girlie need an asthma inhaler?’ ‘Um, yeah, she does. The path is really steep, and her asthma’s playing up. But she’ll be okay.’ ‘I have an inhaler. Would she like a puff?’ ‘Do you actually have one? Baby, do you want a puff? This lady’s got an asthma inhaler.’ Her young father came back and watched his daughter. ‘She hasn’t got the corona virus or anything!’ he promised. X laughed and took her inhaler back. ‘I wouldn’t care if she did. She’s a little girl and she can’t breathe. I know what that’s like.’
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She woke up late on the second day and found that N was already gone. That was fine. She could catch up with her later. She would have a shower and get ready by herself. It would be peaceful. It had been a lovely sleep, lying on her back on the two layers of single foam mattress above the cab, but she’d made sure to puff on her inhaler and to take a few antihistamines, because sometimes mattress foam set her off. The good thing was that she hadn’t rolled, because it was quite a fall to the floor, and she would have hit the chilly bin that she’d used for a step up on the way down.
……..The back packers in the red van next door were drinking from steaming mugs. They obviously had hot water. ‘Hi,’ she said. ‘Do you smoke?’ ‘Ahh, smoke, no,’ said the man. ‘Not cigarettes,’ she said. ‘They looked at her suspiciously.’  ‘Um, sorry,’ she said.  ‘I didn’t mean to offend you.’ ‘We smoke sometimes,’ said the woman tentatively. ‘Okay, would you like to swap a few joints for a cup of hot water then?’ The woman looked at her. X waved her bag of weed. ‘Oh, yes, okay then,’ said the woman, and before X knew it, she had a cup of steaming water to dunk her green tea bag into. Italian? French? She wasn’t sure. She had no idea about accents.
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Dew drops brushed onto her feet as she made her way through the wet morning grass. Steam came from the shower blocks. A woman walked past with her hair in a towel; holding a plastic cup and brushing her teeth.  A wet child stood on his towel to dry off, where his mother had left him.
……..She queued at the men’s showers. The line was always so much shorter. And none of the men were complaining. They knew they were on a better wicket than the women. Each cubicle had a full shower curtain, so it mattered little who was in the ones next to you. What really mattered was that you didn’t drop your undies into the pool of water on the floor, or leave your soap behind. ‘The men’s toilets are blocking,’ said another woman, coming out of that door.  ‘And they’re out of handwash.’ ‘Good to see that you men are washing your hands,’ said another woman who was going past. ‘Oi, is this the men’s queue?’ asked a man from behind X. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘But it’s supposed to be the woman’s line. The W and the O fell off the sign a few hours ago.’ ‘Okay,’ he said, and the man in front of her laughed.
……..‘So what bands are people recommending?’ ‘I really liked the black American trio. Awesome voices. Like birds.’ ‘Oh, when are they playing?’ ‘Well, I saw them last night, but they all play twice, so they’re sure to be on again sometime.’  ‘The blind rappers are good too.’ ‘What are they called?’ ‘I’m not sure how to pronounce it. They’ll be in the programme though.’

 

*

 

X walked along the white powdered track as it curved along the railing. Some people were cutting across the field to get there faster, but she saw no need to do that. Walking the path was all part of the experience. A flock of bright rainbow striped umbrellas with peaks like Indian temples came towards her. She wanted one. It was very hot. The people under them chattered like the parakeets they resembled. She was thankful for her bottle of cold water. She wondered if she’d be able to get it through the gate. Her friend had said that she’d probably have to tip it out, as it said on the programme that only empty bottles were allowed to be taken in.
……..She must have been walking slowly, because a big group of people overtook her. ‘The Northern summer will stop it in its tracks. Viruses don’t like the heat. You never hear of flu going round in the summer,’ said one of them. ‘I heard it’s going off in Egypt and Iran. If the heat was going to have an effect on it, they wouldn’t be getting it there.’ ‘It’ll be fine. We’re all outside. Viruses blow away in the air. It’s only inside in the stagnant air that they thrive. I always open my windows in the winter, and I never catch anything.’ ‘Apparently the skies have cleared over China. Because they’ve had to shut down their factories. Good for the planet, if nothing else.’
……..She consulted her programme. Whoever wrote the programme notes had a beautiful touch with words.  ‘Indie sludge-pop’ read the descriptor for one band. ‘Metal heads, intellectual punks and fairy anarchists rolled into one,’ read another. Nice. She was going to find it hard to choose what to see.
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One of the paths between stages ran above the children playing on the steep earth bank under the shade of the old oak trees. Climbing on the low, flexible branches and rocking up and down on them. Poking at the dirt with sticks, trying to chip it away, as if they could make any difference to anything. Scrambling and crawling, happy being children, and free for the day while their parents were busy with wine and music. A paradise for them now, a happy childhood memory one day.
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She settled to listen to a band. The trees seemed happy for the chattering conversation, as if they hadn’t taken part in such a thing for a long time, and were enjoying the same vibe as the humans. She put her face up to the sun. The leaves were preparing to fall, but not yet, and the sunshine shone directly into her eyes, mitigated by the dappling of the spaces between.
……..And still everyone was talking about the corona virus. ‘I don’t think we’ll get it over here, but better safe than sorry,’ said someone.
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People manoeuvered around each other at the wash basins, taking more care than usual with the soap from the dispenser. ‘I guess we won’t be catching much of anything this year, with all this handwashing. Perhaps we should have a pandemic every year.  That’d keep us all healthy!’
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‘Oh my gosh!’  X looked up from a stall selling carved soap stone animals, horned coral and fossilized rocks, and felt the recognition that dawns when you see an old friend out of place.  The other person’s features resolved themselves into a familiar pattern. ‘Can’t believe that you’re here!’ said G. ‘Good to be here, really. Perhaps it will be the last party on Earth. Who knows, the way things are going…’ ‘Yeah, it’s all a bit strange, isn’t it?’ ‘Definitely.’ ‘All these signs about washing your hands everywhere.’ ‘I’m surprised it was allowed to go ahead. Everything else is getting cancelled.’ ‘Ya. We’re lucky. I would have been pissed off to get all the way here only to find that it wasn’t on.’
……..They arranged to meet up later, to dance to the African percussion group.
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X and N found each other again and sat near the front of the generous grass rows, where people lounged on pod chairs, wearing sunny day hats. A young girl with big dark eyes coughed into her hand about four rows in front of her. X gazed at her as she hacked. Should she be worried? Coughing was bad. Was the girl near enough for it to be a problem? No one else was even looking. It was four rows in front of her. No need to be anxious. And apart from herself, it was the only person she’d heard coughing since she’d gotten here. The girl wiped her hand on her sleeve.  She was one of two girls, most likely sisters. X tried to place their ethnicity, but it was difficult to tell. There were so many people from so many lands here. That was one of the things that made it interesting.
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There were two paths in to the water station where empty water bottles could be filled. For some reason, the path on the left had a long queue, but the one on the right only had one person standing in line. X lined up behind them. The person in front of her went to the newly free pump in front of them. ‘Excuse me!’ said the woman at the middle station. ‘It’s a line. You come in one side and go out the other.’ ‘Is that right?’ said X frowning. ‘You could come in either side earlier.’ ‘It’s a line,’ said the woman firmly. ‘You can come in either side,’ said the person who had gone in ahead of X.’ ‘That’s right,’ said someone leaning on the water pump.’ ‘It’s a line!’ repeated the woman. ‘I’ve just queued for twenty minutes.’ ‘Oh, okay,’ said X, unwilling to be the source of conflict. If it was that important, she wanted to be fair. But as she went to the back of the longer line and moved forward, she saw people going in through the small gate she’d originally been waiting at. She shrugged and surrendered to the universe. It was little bikkies. And she had all the time in the world anyway.
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That afternoon she wandered along behind N, who was on her way to queue for alcohol, until she realized that a band was firing up on the stage she was crossing directly in front of. She ducked down to the footpath below her to take a closer look. No one was there other than a few people sprinkled on the grass behind her, and a few others on the path next to her; transiting from one place to another. She stood straight in front of the stage. Only muddy water was between herself and the band. Orange carp swam near the surface like cloudy ghosts. What were they playing, some sort of Balkan-metal belly dance? The black beanie wearing man who was playing his maracas in the ear of the bassist looked African, while the man to the left of him dressed in a white skivvy and expensive dark glasses looked like a rich Arab. My gosh; beat!! she thought. And the woman on the end with the guitar sounds like Nina Hagen.  The band were at a slight remove across the water, but the energy they gave off on the huge sight screen above their heads was intense. I’ll stay here, she thought; messaging up ahead to her friend. ‘Don’t wait for me. I’m going to groove to this.’ A crowd built quickly up behind her.
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Later on, some people were starting to get fractious. ‘Do I look like I’ve got your glasses?’ said a full figured, angry woman to the man who was trying to catch hold of her. He had a dazed look in his eyes. She had coloured Xmas lights in her tutu. ‘Do I LOOK like I’ve got your fucking glasses?’ X thought it was a pity that here was a place full of joy, and some people had lost their connection with that. There was only one life.
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She found G and her family near the front. ‘You remember my daughter M, don’t you?’ ‘Of course I do. How are you M?’ she said, kissing her. They chatted for a while, as M was friends with X’s daughter and wanted to hear about what she was up to.
……..‘So, corona virus, corona virus,’ said G. ‘Yes, totally. What do you think?’ ‘I’m worried about J. He has a heart condition.’ ‘Yeah, I know, ay? I get asthma. I’d be at risk too. That’s the thing. No one’s safe. We just don’t know whose number might be on the tickets.’ And suddenly, as those words came out of her own mouth, she felt scared.  She shook her head in the darkness, banishing the thought like a candle flame. ‘It’ll be fine.’
……..The sky was black, without stars, like the roof of a cavern. A drone hovered above their heads, its red lights observing them like malignant eyes as they moved together in one dark mass, each alone and yet surrounded by people. Once upon a time, a flying robot filming them from above would have been unthinkable, but now, nobody even seemed to notice. She nudged her friend. ‘And one day, we’ll say, that’s actual footage of how the corona virus spread so widely in our country.’ Her friend laughed. A safe laugh in the dark. And the night itself was almost a song, it was so warm and intimate.
……..X could feel the throbbing of the music. It sounded like the hum of a thousand bees, all lined up and ready for battle; vibrating their wings in unison. And when the electronica broke loose, she felt like a mechanical bee too; dipping and swooping with the straight lines of her arms pushed backwards from her body. She WAS one of thousands, all pulsating to the same beat.
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Later, she went to find N, but strayed into what appeared to be the teenage area instead. Young people milled around her and determinedly packed the tables, sitting on each other’s knees. The girls looked cold, but perhaps you weren’t when you were young. X had a blanket around her shoulders, while they were in their boob tubes; their newly formed breasts making little impression against the cling. Teenage couples sat twined together; asserting ownership, but with nothing much to say to each other as they stared into the crowd. She made her way out, and bought a vegetarian curry and some deep fried chips made from chickpea flour, before putting her rubbish into the bins at one of the recycling stations.
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She went back to the campsite while the last bands for the night were still playing, feeling unusually tired. Normally, she would have insisted on partying till the party stopped. Perhaps it was the long drive that she’d done to get there the day before. The chalk path glistened white in the moonlight as she walked back past the race track grandstand, as if it WAS the actual surface of the moon. Everyone else was either in their beds, or already over in the park with the music. X had the long path to herself. Perfect for smoking. A joint should last her from here till the truck.
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It turned out that not everyone was in their beds. ‘Fuck off!  I’ve got sleeping children, and our awning is no way impinging on your space,’ a woman was shouting in the next row as X tried to figure out which path she should take to get back to the truck. A lower voice mumbled. ‘As this lady here said…’ she could hear. ‘Don’t push my husband,’ shouted the first woman. ‘Don’t touch him again, or I’ll call the police!’ X wondered if she should do something. She was only on her way back to N’s horse float. What could she do? How would they call the police? And how would the police find their way through the maze of tents and camper vans? Music thumped across the valley just across the way. These were flash people with motor homes. Surely they could manage themselves. Sometimes there wasn’t much you could do about things.
……..‘They oversold the camping tickets,’ said N when she got back, and X told her about it. ‘They always do. There’s still people circling, looking for spots.’ ‘I didn’t know whether to stop,’ said X. ‘Don’t worry about it. Security would have come. They’re everywhere. There’s always someone to sort things out.’
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The next morning the sky was still as blue as it had been all weekend, but bright and early so, as if the real business hadn’t started yet.
……..‘The main topics of conversation here are music and the Corona Virus,’ she messaged her partner in Texas, using the little fuzzy green emoji that came up after the word virus. It’s so good to be here, and enjoying being in the moment, because who knows when they’ll let us have a big public gathering like this again? They even have monitors supervising us to wash our hands. Not in the camping ground part though.’
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‘I think those notes that Finnish singer hit just broke the sound barrier!’ she said to N when they were over in the music zone again. ‘She was amazing wasn’t she? But I need to get out of the sun.’ ‘Yeah, now we know why everyone was clustered around the shady areas. I’m feeling sort of dizzy. Let’s sit down for a while.’
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They talked to random strangers. ‘The way to get your alcohol in is to pour Vodka into the bottom of your chilly bin and freeze it solid, before putting a bit of loose ice in on top, alongside some food. Get there, settle in, take your chilled containers of food out and wait for the ice to melt. You’re eating the food first anyway, so you don’t need the ice to keep that cold anymore. Then you can scoop the liquid out with those reusable glasses. Nice and slushy and cold. Everybody can share!’ ‘Can you actually get away with it?’ ‘Only if it’s vodka, because it has no scent.’ ‘Good to know for next time,’ said N.
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‘It’s keep left!’ someone snapped at X later on as they bumped into her while going the opposite direction on the top pathway. Um, she thought. Actually, you all just surrounded me as you left the stage where your music just finished. And I’m in the centre. But it just wasn’t worth responding to such small aggravations.
……..Her feet hurt, so she decided to sit down and massage them. A stall nearby was selling witches’ remedies, so she took a bit of tester cream on a wooden iceblock stick to rub in to them. It smelled sweet with peppermint. Sitting in the shade of the tents, she was glad she had sprayed on her sunblock before she came. Some of the people with fair skin were blushing pink.
……..It felt like a big picnic in the sun. People were dancing down the middle of the daisy covered grass slope, while other people reclined with picnic blankets and sunhats; some in the shade, some edging close to the dancers. Plastic tumblers full of drinks with bubbles. People sprawling everywhere. People moving everywhere.
……..X went down to join them. She could hear the man in front of her talking to the group he was sitting with. ‘Never has it been clearer that we’re all cells in the same petri dish. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what colour your skin is or what you believe in. The virus doesn’t care.’
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The band on stage had big exaggerated brass instruments; tubas curling over their heads, and trumpets reaching up to call out to Gabriel. Glittering sax. Their oompah rocked. ‘It’s time to party!’ the vocalist screamed into the microphone. The crowd cheered together as one. ‘I want to hear you party!!’ The crowd roared. ‘Because soon we’ll all be dead anyway!!’ And as they swung into their next song, X wondered if what he said was true, because people were dying on the news all around the world, and he probably had to go back to his own country. Where was that? She consulted her programme. Australia. Could the healthy young singer with the tattooed sleeve running up his arm know his own fate, or the fate of any or all of them? Or had it just been a throw-away line? Around her, people were dancing frantically, and she gave herself up to moving with them. ‘If there’s aliens up there, they’re watching us rock!’ she heard someone next to her say between songs.
……..‘Hang on, hang on!!’ the vocalist shouted at the end of the set. And he and the band all squatted together facing the back of the stage, snapping off a selfie with the twenty thousand cheering people who curved up the bank of the natural amphitheatre behind them.
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X had decided not to stay for the spit and sparks of the fireworks that would mark the end, when people would drag themselves wearily back to their tents and campers before making their way leisurely home the next day, knowing that they either had the day off or were going to take a sickie. She wasn’t sorry, because she felt all partied out. A bit achy, a bit tired. It was mid-afternoon. She could drive home before dark if she went now. She went to the toilets for the last time before she left. The hand wash had run out, but someone had left a cake of soap.
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In the car on the way home, X felt a bit hot. Was she sick or not? She wasn’t sure. Perhaps she should wind down the windows and let the sea air in. She popped a panny with her left hand and sighed. Back to work tomorrow. She would have to take a wickie, a working sickie. She had a lot of things that she needed to get done. Back to normality. It was a pity that parties didn’t last. But perhaps that was what made them special.

 

 


Alice Tawhai (Tainui, Ngāpuhi) is a short fiction writer whose works pay particular attention to contemporary Māori culture and the experience of ethnic minorities in New Zealand. Her books have been repeatedly recognised by the NZ Listener as a best book during their year of publication and shortlisted for the Montana Book Award for Best First Book. Her work has also been anthologised in Lost in Translation: New Zealand Stories, and Some Other Country: New Zealand’s Best Short Stories 4th edition.

Alice Tawhai is a pen name. Due to personal circumstances Alice wishes to remain anonymous.

 

'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell

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