White Whale, fiction by Sharni Wilson

When I put on my heavy-duty, holographic pink raincoat and started down the stairs to the living room, there he was—a leviathan, pacing around the room, roaring into his phone, dominating the space as if it belonged to him. It did—he owned the townhouse we were renting, and his enormous, shiny portrait hung on the wall, in which he held up a giant kingfish, grinning. I hadn’t met him before, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet him now, even though he was Quinn’s dad.

I stopped short and stared at our landlord—the portrait in the flesh—he didn’t seem to notice me at all, engrossed in his phone call, his face distorted with rage. He was shinier and glossier in person: his casual, flattering clothes glowed with newness, accentuated with a statement watch and a tasteful gold chain. He had thick, silvery white hair, and the deep tan of yachts, golf courses, and tropical holidays. The living room suddenly looked smaller and cheaper by comparison, with our tatty couches in it. I felt like a human tatty couch: off-white and shabby, unworthy to share a room with him, let alone uphold his regal bum cheeks.

‘No, that’s not bloody good enough,” he bellowed into the phone. ‘Unacceptable, completely unacceptable. Sort it out. Your cock’s on the block.’

Instinctively I felt for the step behind me with my toe.

‘Oh, hello,’ said an unexpected female voice. Flushing, I turned toward the husky upper-class Remuera tones: hovering in the corner was a woman of indeterminate age, whom I hadn’t noticed until she spoke. Rail-thin, with incongruously huge breasts. Hair dyed platinum blonde. Beautiful, in a very processed way, but flickering with tension. ‘We’re Quinn’s parents,’ she explained, with lips like rubber dinghies. Her deep, dark eyes were Quinn’s eyes, but older and defined by heavy makeup. ‘We’re going out for dinner. She’s just getting changed.’

I swallowed against the familiar tightness in my throat. Quinn hadn’t said anything about that, although she’d been practically pushing me out the door. Typical. I was finally getting to meet the parents. It was not at all how I’d imagined the scene, in my rosier-tinted fantasies. I suddenly remembered that I should be smiling.

‘You’re going down for this,’ Quinn’s dad said into his phone. ‘What are we paying you for?’ The solid buttress of his forehead gleamed with a sheen of moisture.

‘I’m Ishbel, I moved in two weeks ago,’ I said. I didn’t say: I’m Quinn’s girlfriend. It wasn’t like that. Quinn was a very private person. We had separate rooms. We were “flatmates.”

‘No more excuses,’ Quinn’s dad shouted at the poor wretch on the receiving end. ‘It’s your mistake and your incompetence. Call me when you’ve fixed it. And it better be soon.’ He stabbed at the phone with a thick forefinger and pocketed it.

We all shook hands—Quinn’s dad crushed my fingers without mercy—and I made polite small talk with Quinn’s mum, Abha, (‘What are you studying?’ ‘Marine biology’), while Quinn’s dad shook out a little white pill and swallowed it dry, hesitated briefly, and then repeated the action.

I was planning my escape when Quinn thumped down the stairs in her sexy leather boots. ‘Took you long enough,’ Quinn’s dad snarled as she emerged, and slammed the door aside on his way out as if it had personally insulted him. Abha followed close behind, limping slightly in her ivory stilettos. I found Quinn’s hand and squeezed it in solidarity: she gave me a tense smile and let my hand drop to run down the stairs after them.

Trailing along in their wake, I wondered what Quinn’s dad thought of all her tattoos. A golden coin peeked out from under her hair at the base of her neck—he might not know about the other ones.

The rain was hissing and furious on the panes of the front door. Her parents fumbled around with umbrellas and jackets.

‘Look at that: it’s much worse than when we arrived,’ Abha said. In motion, her rubber-dinghy lips were rigid and lumpy. ‘Would you like a ride? You’re on your way to the university, aren’t you?’

Behind her, Quinn gave an almost imperceptible warning shake of her head, but I felt I had to accept—it would be too strange to refuse a ride in this weather.

Outside, a few steps away through the sheets of water, the tall, wide outline of an SUV was visible in front of a boat trailer. The shiny new boat on the trailer had the inscription Pequod on the hull. We scrambled into the SUV, Quinn’s dad swearing like a sailor. Dripping in the fine leather interior, we were thrown about as he swerved backwards out of our driveway, heedless of the boat trailer flung around behind. Quinn and I held onto the doors on the opposite sides of the back seat. He drove with a singular aggression, trusting that other drivers would get out of his way.

‘Where are you off to? Oh, the Institute of Marine Science… I know how to get there,’ he shouted, flooring the accelerator as soon as the lights turned green. I had a sinking feeling that he didn’t know how to get there at all—why would he? He launched into a monologue about his boat. It didn’t seem like anyone else was invited to join in, and anyway, I knew nothing about boats. In the middle of it his phone rang (with a Led Zeppelin instrumental), and he took one hand off the wheel to take the call. ‘I said to call me when you’ve fixed it, you moron. Jesus!’ I prayed for a cop car to pull us over, as he ranted about the product release, and then KPIs, bandwidth, and alignment.

Quinn stayed silent, her mouth set. It was like the real Quinn (the Quinn I knew, at least) was gone for now, and the body in the back of the car with me was a mannequin. Either that or she was just a bit stressed that her parents might pick up a vibe between us.

Around and around we went, as he shouted all kinds of words into his phone, punctuated by obscenities aimed at other drivers. K Road, Mercury Lane, East Street, back to K Road again. At intervals he ended his call and began a new one. His one-sided conversation continued unabated—‘manage the optics’, ‘square the circle’, ‘move the needle’.

‘Richie, I think we should turn right at this next set of lights,’ Abha interjected, looking at her phone. I knew she was correct. I took a breath, about to chime in.

‘Don’t bloody tell me.’ He ruffled her hair with some force. ‘Now, about the paradigm shift–’

‘No, really, we should turn right here,’ she protested with the utmost mildness.

‘Shut your mouth, you muppet.’

I couldn’t tell whether he was talking to his wife or the phone. We were all pushed back into our seats as he revved straight through the lights. The pedestrians exposed to the elements were running bent double, buffeted by the wind. A drenched woman holding a newspaper over her head turned to flip our SUV the bird, her hand held high to the heavens. I wished I was out there.

‘How about the next right, then? Richie?’ Abha persisted. At the next intersection, turning right was not permitted.

‘Stop being so fucking controlling,’ he said. ‘I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Let a man think.’ He drove on, berating his phone, tailgating, switching lanes without indicating. At least his headlights were on.

Abha stroked the surface of her phone with a nervy, obsessive intensity, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and then slid it back into her Prada clutch. Quinn gave me a brief, cool look. I tried to warn you, her eyes said.

He drove in circles, braking and accelerating furiously. The water smashed out of the sky, beat down on the car windows. He shouted and raged. Nausea rose in my throat. It was a Sisyphean circuit: one of those senseless, terrifying dreams that go on and on. I looked at Quinn again: she glanced at me with what looked like despair. I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder, letting it linger there for a moment. She brushed my hand aside.

‘Dad, try going left here.’ Quinn sounded like a subdued stranger—as if her personality had been crushed by the hostile mass of his.

He thudded the phone down unto his thigh. ‘Don’t you stick your oar in,’ he said. ‘You’ve got no brains. Not a single clue. No brains, just like your mother. If you had any brains, you wouldn’t be studying fucking anthropology. You’d be doing law and economics, like I told you to.’ His tone was almost absentminded, as if he’d said the same words many times before.

Quinn hunched a bit lower, her face carefully blank. My eyes prickled with tears. His aggression was scary, but the thing that really scared me was how their family dynamic seemed so entrenched that it was normal for them. Just another day, trying to get from A to B, with me, a virtual stranger, albeit an insignificant one, in the car.

Abha stroked his arm soothingly, swivelled to look back over her shoulder at me, smiling with a dutiful docility. ‘Quinn has such a passion for other cultures,’ she said. ‘Did you know, for her gap year, she lived on a tiny island in the Pacific?’

I couldn’t handle any more. ‘Here is fine,’ I said. We were on K Road again, approaching Symonds Street. Not too far away. I’d walk. Quinn stared into her lap.

‘Nonsense!’ he snorted.

‘Let me out please.’ My hand was on the door handle. ‘Please.’

He sped up, but the lights were just up ahead, glowing a beautiful red. We pulled into the lane turning right. Wrong way, again. Good thing the traffic was light.

‘Ishbel, perhaps you’d like to join us for dinner?’ Abha offered, holding on to her seat. I couldn’t think of anything worse right then, but maybe it was the best way to break out of our endless circling. I looked at Quinn for my cue—she failed to meet my eyes, and that’s when I had a premonition that things were never going to work out between us. Sooner or later, our relationship was doomed to fail, because nothing would ever change: she’d never stop hiding.

‘No thank you, I really must…’ My polite voice trailed off as the SUV wove around the corner, boat trailer in tow, narrowly missing a cyclist. The boat trailer clipped a pole with a metallic clank, and we rocked from side to side. I pictured my own death in graphic detail; clicked my seat-belt open. Tried the door: it was locked from the inside. Damn it.

A sudden wild horror descended on me, and I clawed at the door handle with berserk strength, past caring how it looked.

‘Let me out right now!’ I repeated, my voice rising in an unstable screech.

‘The girl’s hysterical. Bloody typical.’

‘Go fuck yourself. You dick.’ I heard the words in the car, loud and strong, but couldn’t believe I’d actually said them. Quinn’s eyes were round: she looked at me, properly, for the first time since we’d gotten into the car. I was afraid.

His open mouth snapped closed. He sputtered, stepped on the brake till it squealed, and pulled over. The door opened under my clutching fingers and I launched myself out into the storm. I’d never been so glad to get out of a car. The bucketing rain felt like an overwhelming rush of gratitude.

But Quinn, if only I could’ve taken her with me… Should I have said something like, your wife and daughter deserve to be treated with respect? Would that have changed anything? I’d have to start looking for a new place to live first thing. Not to mention a new girlfriend. Or should I swallow my pride, apologize to them both and try to smooth things somehow?

In shock I walked on, back to the flooded intersection of Symonds Street and K Road. Then hearing the swerving of wheels as the SUV wheeled round in a reckless U-turn, I turned, to see it bearing down on me. It shot forwards with frightening velocity, water flinging from its wheels like mountain torrents down a flume, and as it reached the vast puddle at the Symonds Street lights, it spun closer, and the wave shot up in a fan of muddy water higher than head-height, drenching me from head to toe. I saw the apologetic O of the wife’s mouth as she clutched her husband’s arm, following him along no matter what, the dark shadow of Quinn in the back, and the vehicle drove on relentlessly, hydroplaning out of sight around the corner.

I walked on, as soggy as if I’d been swimming. My phone beeped—a death rattle from water damage? I made it across the intersection to the shelter of the shops, plucked it out of my jacket pocket with a sopping hand and shook the water off, and there it was: a text from Quinn.

You’re right, my dad’s a dick. A MOBY dick. Let’s move somewhere better. Love you xx


Sharni Wilson is a New Zealand writer of fiction and Japanese-to-English literary translator, whose work has appeared in Takahē and the Tokyo Poetry Journal. She  can be found at www.sharniwilson.com

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