James and I left Te Kainga on the 6th of January, 2008. James was driving, and I was choosing the music. Everyone else on the road was assigned the vital task of reacting with terrified bafflement as Mabel, James’ beloved “Nissan Pulsar” (so far removed from the factory model as to have a doubtful claim to the name) tore past them at half again the speed limit, the roar of its mighty engine mingling with the strains of two teenagers singing about their asses getting them down1 at the top of their lungs. It was the height of summer, and we had the windows open, the smell of the pines blasting in as we rocketed down the long avenues through the plantations on the hills between Rotorua and Taupo.
We stopped in Taupo for lunch, eating burgers by the water, and James regaled me with a tale of the girl he’d hooked up with on New Years’ Eve, who was “so hot” but “a bit of a ditz”. I kicked back and mentally filed his story; just a few more and I’d be able to figure out an alphanumeric category system for his ‘relationships’. James was a great believer in quantity over quality, and his careful creation of a persona of almost godlike coolness had allowed him to live the dream for years.
Across the water, the peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu loomed in their dark summer plumage, just a few hints of snow remaining near their cratered peaks. After lunch we headed in their direction, and James moderated his speed for the sharp curves of the coast-hugging road between Taupo and Turangi, before letting rip on the straights down what’s called the Desert Road. A little melodramatic, really. It’s closer to a heath than anything else, though scarred by both centuries of volcanism and decades of human efforts to tame the watershed. Canals score the plateau, diverting water into the Waikato River, where it drives the turbines of the dams which dot the length of the river.
The other thing you see on this part of the road are the signs. There’s one every so often, on both sides of the road, warning passersby that this is a live fire area.
Waiouru is a smaller town than Te Kainga, though there is the museum, constructed to architecturally represent a fortress without actually being a fortress, the better to go with the tank and artillery piece in the front yard. We turned off before we reached the town or the museum, and almost immediately ran into a security checkpoint. James rolled his window down and leaned out to talk to the fatigue-clad private on duty.
“Hey, can we come in?” From this angle I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he’d have his shit-eating grin turned up to 11. James loves playing games with those who have apparent authority over him.
“I’m very sorry, sir, but this is, uh, military property, and we can’t let any, uh, civilians in without the right, uh, right clearance.” The private was obviously becoming aware of the disconcerting qualities of James’ grin. It seemed vaguely idiotic, and somewhat infuriating, and it showed an awful lot of teeth.
“You mean… this clearance?” James flourished the card he’d received in the mail a couple of weeks after we sent away our NDAs. I held mine up, too, in the view of the poor sap, and gave him a thin little smile. I can’t be absolutely sure, given that the clearances were all given in code words, but I have the feeling, looking back, that they cleared us to go more or less anywhere. That was Crenshaw’s style through and through.
“You guys, uh, you can go right along,” he told us, shock evident on his face. “Oh, wait! I need your phones and, uh, any other photographic devices you have.”
James immediately whipped out his phone and pressed a few buttons, then paused for a few seconds before speaking.
“Hi, you’ve reached James’ phone. I’ve had to hand my phone in to security, but if you leave a message, I’ll ring you back as soon as I get it back. And if it’s you – and you know who you are – I’m thinking of you and I am definitely putting those thoughts into action as soon as I see you again.” He tapped the button and handed it over to the guard. “If you get a call from Marama, answer it before it stops ringing and tell her you’re looking after my phone for me. She likes shy guys.”
The private thanked him on automatic, then mutely accepted my phone, his eyes thanking me for not manifesting any more eccentricity or confidence than was necessary. The bar lifted, and we drove in, windows open, with our sunglasses on and our arms resting on the doors in calculated nonchalance.
“How many would the ‘you’ in that message refer to right now, James?” I asked, just out of casual interest.
“Just two. Marama, who knows the score, and Kelly from New Years’ Eve… I haven’t managed to let her down gently yet.”
He was like that. It annoyed me, but he was never cruel with it, so I couldn’t exactly disapprove without seeming jealous. But then, he knew that when I asked him those sorts of questions, I was registering my disapproval without actually disapproving, and he generally cut it down to one at a time for a couple of months. He also knew that if he ever really hurt someone, I’d rip off his balls while he was sleeping.
James has a memory for directions which is as good as my memory for quotations, and we were soon gliding up to a long, low building with blacked-out windows. We sat for a few seconds, after he turned off the ignition, and stared at the half-open door. We could feign confidence in front of the guard, but now we were up against the real deal.
“Weeelp,” said James, “I guess we’d better go in.” We both grabbed our bags from the back and were halfway to the door when she pushed it open and stepped out.
It would be nice to say that I felt something special the first time I saw Alex, but the truth was that all I felt was a certain amount of awe and a rising erection.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Then, and now, Alex is and was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She… hell, I could write a hundred pages just about her eyes, deep green pools I could sink into forever quite happily, or about her hair, a rich, smouldering auburn, though when I first saw her it was trimmed short under her uniform cap. I was in awe, yes, but at that point it was nothing more than the awe I feel in the presence of anything truly filled with beauty. As for the erection, she had more curves than Pikes Peak, all in perfect proportion, and in the words of the ZZ Top song, she had legs, and she knew how to use them.
“You’re the new guys?” she asked rhetorically. “Nice shirts.”
“Thanks. This is Will, and I’m James Campion. It is… well, it’s really a pleasure to meet you.”
“You guys are brothers?”
“I, uh, no, uh, I’m, well, uh, I’m… Will Masters. Nice to see you.” Smooth and cool, that’s me. I even remembered my name on the third go. James gave me a look of pure amusement, then smiled again at the angel who, at that point, I could only have identified by looking at the name patch on her chest, which I didn’t especially want to be caught staring at.
“Nice to meet you two as well. I’m Alex Teague, I’m the US representative on this little project of ours. Which unit are you with?”
James and I looked at each other. We could tell the truth, of course. We could. Any time we wanted.
“Her Majesty’s Te Kainga Irregulars,” I invented madly, cursing whatever feature of my brain made it easier to create an army unit out of thin air than to remember my own name.
“Those shirts part of the uniform?” she asked, a twinkle in her eye.
“We’re highly irregular,” James answered, his grin returning.
“Oh. Well, in the US, people have to keep that kind of thing secret if they want to join the army. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is,” she said, her voice perfectly regular. It was then that I decided that I liked her, as well as lusting after her.
“Dude,” I said, turning to James, “She just called you gay.”
“I noticed that…” he paused, “darling.” His delivery was perfect dead-pan, and we all burst into laughter. Partly out of relief, I think; it was nice to know that the person who met us first, out of whatever organisation was running this show, was someone we could get on with.
1“My Neighbour’s Ass” by Tim Minchin.