My name is Nancy. Nan. Nance. Nancy Pants. I'm not normally a contemplative person, but lately I've found myself ruminating on fences. A lot. Here's what I know: from where I stand (literally in front of my lounge window, metaphorically as an aggrieved neighbour) a good fence is a necessary comfort. It imposes order on the landscape. It offers a sense of protection. It separates.
My fence, or as I affectionately call it, The Line of Demarcation, is not a thing of beauty. It is constructed of wooden posts, rammed into the earth and joined by a series of wires. Simple, inelegant. And yet I have grown to appreciate it. I love the way the wires stretch into the distance in each direction, tapering off to a single point. I love their twang when my sheep rub up against the posts. And I love the fact that it says, without any need for verbalisation or habitual scent marking, Back off. This is mine. That is yours.
It was on a sticky mid-summer evening that I found myself crossing three fence lines (only one of which belonged to me) and courting a whole lot of over-the-fence trouble.
I had entered a patch of thick bush, full of tree ferns and leafy kawakawa, and could hear the babble of water running over rocks. I stepped through a screen of fern fronds to discover a stream running through a glade. The water was clear and tumbled over moss-covered rocks. It was so picturesque in the soft evening light that I stood for several minutes drinking it in. A few metres downstream, the rocks had formed a partial dam, creating a pool, and I, uncomfortable from the day's dried sweat, felt that there was little choice but to accept the water's invitation.
I stepped out of my gumboots and clothes, peeled off my damp socks, and stepped tentatively into the water. It was gasp-inducingly cold, but boy was it good. I dived under and swam the few strokes to the other side where the bank afforded a place to sit in the water. I set to work scrubbing the day's grime off, giving particular attention to the sourness of my armpits, then leaned back and closed my eyes, listening to the water's chatter.
"Ah, can I help you?” said a voice to my left.
"Fuck!” I replied and turned to see a man standing over my clothes and holding the ends of a towel draped around his neck. I covered my breasts with one arm and sat lower in the water. "Sorry, you gave me a fright.”
"I gave you a fright? I come here every day after I've finished work. On my farm. I don't expect to find anyone else.” The light was behind him, so he was hard to make out, but I could see he was dressed in singlet, shorts and gumboots, and that the top did a perfect job of showcasing his muscular arms. "You do know you're trespassing?”
"Yep. Sorry.” The sibilance was lost among the din of cicada calls enveloping the clearing, so that it came out "orry”.
He released his towel and shifted his hands to his hips.
Despite the cool of the water, heat pooled in my cheeks and my words tumbled out in a heap. "It's just I've been working on my land over a week now and I've never seen anybody around. Your existence hasn't really registered, sorry. And, ah, I've been taking some liberties exploring your farm in the evenings. That's how I found this place.”
"Have you now?” He took a step forward.
"I'm building a house on that block of land next door to you” – I waved an arm in the general direction – "and I can't decide where the best place to put it is.”
"Uh-huh.” Another step.
My voice rose in pitch to match that of the sex-hungry cicadas. "So, I've been trying to get a sense of the lie of the land, you know, review all the different prospects, which requires doing some…reconnaissance on neighbouring hills.”
"Right.” He paused. "How's the prospect from my stream?”
I offered him my best smile. The one that turns my crow's feet into attractive laughter lines. "Gosh, it's gorgeous here.” I made a point of looking around me. "You're very lucky to have this.” I sank further under the water. "On your property.”
The farmer had stepped out of the shadow of the trees and I could see he was somewhere in his thirties, with dark hair and darker eyes under a deep frown.
"Have you met Saffron yet?” the mouth under the frown said.
"Local eel. Has a name for making herself known by latching onto tender, dangly bits. I haven't swum naked in here since she nearly circumcised me when I was seven.”
I sat upright. "Oh my God.”
"She's much bigger now – prefers larger meat, calves mostly, the odd forearm.”
I started edging my way back to the other side of the stream, searching the water for a long black shape.
"Doesn't hurt much, but once she clamps on you've got to allow her to let go in her own good time. Pull her off and her backwards-facing teeth'll tear the flesh.”
I felt something brush past my leg. "Ngaaaaaarrrrrrr,” I shrieked, leaping to my feet to demurely scrabble, arse out, up the bank. I stood panting, facing The Frown's hastily turned back, and as my panicked brain jumped from Eel! to Where are my clothes?, my focus shifted to the back of his head. It was turned slightly, the cheek rounded in a smile. I pivoted towards the water and peered into its depths. Nothing. Not a ripple, not a shadow. "Oh, ha bloody ha, good joke.” I put a hand to my chest in a futile effort to calm my heart.
The head tilted down and chuckled into its gumboots.
"Yeah, alright.” I took a deep breath and said more gently, "Could you at least pass my clothes? The sooner I'm dressed, the sooner I'm gone.”
I was delicately handed my undies between two fingers.
I stepped into them and tried to pull them over my wet thighs, but only succeeded in rolling them into a tight band. With a grunt, I forced them to crotch level and attempted to peel them over my damp buttocks. When I finally succeeded in separating fabric from skin, I lifted my head and got a face full of sweat-laced sports bra. I jerked my head backwards and snatched it from his fingers. Offering an ungracious "cheers”, I worked to turn it through the right way.
Now, the problem with sports bras is that because they’re designed to hold all the soft parts in place so that they don't so much as jiggle, such bras are rather tight. I managed to get the thick elastic at the bottom of the bra as far as my armpits, and there, thanks to the firmness of the fabric and the clamminess of my skin, it refused to move. "Fuck,” I muttered under my breath. I couldn't get my arms into a position to effectively pull it down. I moved my arms uselessly from front to back then gave up, leaving them propped up like antennae and my face buried in boob-binding polyester.
I turned to face the stream. "Uh…could you just…?”
I heard a snort and the bottom of my bra was yanked down.
"Thanks.” I swung back around and was presented with my t-shirt and shorts. "Forget it. I'm sure you've seen a woman in her underwear before.” I grabbed the clothes from his outstretched hand, marched around him and stepped into my gumboots. I walked on without looking back. "Enjoy your swim. Neighbour.”
"Thank you, I most certainly will.”
I trudged back across the paddocks to my property, sinking into an ever-darkening mood. Being humiliated at the hands of a male made me think of Derek. I didn't like to think of Derek, but I was finding him increasingly hard to exorcise from my head. He was the reason I was here, after all.
Six months ago, Derek dropped the “met someone else” bomb and just to make sure I was really down and bleeding, strafed my forty-year-old pride by implying she was much younger. There was only one course of action: retreat to the happy place of my childhood summers and nurse the pulpy mess of the Derek-shaped hole in my chest. That place was Pukeroa, a two-horse town nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps. It was also the home of Margot, the mother I sometimes wish I'd had. When I’d arrived, she drew me to her ample bosom and offered a double gin and tonic when I came up for air. I asked for a triple.
It was in the window of the Pukeroa General Store that I saw the advertisement for the land. Three hectares of rolling, retired farmland with a magnificent view of the mountains for a price I really needed to negotiate, but didn't have the energy to. A few months later, with paltry change from the exchange of inner-city villa for lifestyle block, but still riding the high of resignation from a job I found little satisfaction in, I rolled back into town determined to forge a new life. One that was fulfilling and gave me purpose and on no account featured men of the falling-in-love-with variety. However, it wasn't long before I realised Derek had hitched a ride and shedding him would be a herculean task.
When I negotiated the third fence, the one that did belong to me, I headed for my car and the phone that was nestled in the front console. I rang my oldest and closest friend, Hanita, and relayed the stream encounter with as much indignation as I could muster in the energy-sapping heat.
"I've named him The Frown. With capitals.”
"Weak,” I said, laughing despite myself.
"But look, Nance, to be fair you actually were trespassing, and he might have had a very good reason to scare you off. Like, a large and lucrative plot of marijuana, or he might be the leader of some over-sexed religious cult. He was probably keen to get you out of the water so he could view your potential as one of his wives.”
"No, I think I'm safe there. Hemp sandals may have been a giveaway, but he looked pretty plain Old McDonald in his gumboots.”
"Was he hot? Or was he one of those crusty types that look like they're about to keel over from skin cancer at any moment?”
"No, he displayed a fine representation of all the major muscle groups. But that doesn't make him less of a dick!”
"It definitely makes him less of a dick. He could have just told you to 'fuck off', but instead he thought of an ingenious way to get you out of the water that would also entertain me. I like him.”