There’s a dead look in her eyes and I know what that means. She twirls the car keys round her finger, staring at the Arrivals board. I go to kiss her and she turns away, offers a perfumed cheek. It’s not the welcome I’d expected after 12,000 miles. ‘Come on, then,’ she says. She trudges out of Christchurch airport, a teenager forced to look after an eight-year-old cousin. The silent treatment lasts all the way to her folks’ place, where a reception committee shuffles out to see The Pom. Her Dad dinks a couple of cans of Canterbury together and slinks off, leaving us to our silence. ‘I flew for nearly thirty hours,’ I say. ‘I didn’t ask you to.’
She doesn’t want her folks to see how unreasonable she’s being, so we take the camping gear, stuffing cereal and matches and Moro Bars into our rucksacks, and head out towards Greymouth. I pitch, while she smokes. I go for a long walk across the sands. The Manic Street Preachers sing The Girl Who Wanted to be God and I keep walking, leaving a sloppy trail of prints along the shore. This sea flows to paradise islands and into the unfathomable depths of the Pacific. It’s Fletcher Christian and Robinson Crusoe. I’ve seen it in films, but now I’m here. I kick off my trainers, tug off my T-shirt and run, pumping my knees to my chest. I plunge headfirst into the Tasman Sea and thrash about, punching the air in the chill water. I rise from the water and know: I’ll go it alone.
Queenstown is full of sandal-wearing, grunge-hippies dividing their time between bungee-jumping, bar-tending and learning bass guitar. I find a shop window plastered in posters and go for a two-for-one deal: white water rafting and a trip on a powerboat. They offer to throw in the bungee for a few more dollars, but I rub my spine as if it’s an old war wound.
The rapids thrill. We’re sucked and spat and spun by the Shotover River. We’re bumped by rocks, gripped by currents. They ask for volunteers and I drop over the side. There’s a brief few seconds when I’m tugged under and panic, catching breath. The river spits me out so I seem to float above the rapids, like a cartoon character sat on a geyser. You give yourself up and it gets easier.
Greg, our powerboat skipper, wants to talk about Earls Court. He hits full throttle and we surge forward into the tight canyon. We’re lifted from our seats, splashed and stung by spray. My stomach is a washer on fast spin. Each time he turns or twists or yanks the wheel my guts are left behind. Finally, I stagger with sea-legs onto the gravel and we go drinking. At midnight I walk into a deathly quiet, lights-out cabin. There’s a fug of smoke and stale beer.
‘Well I hope you had a good time, anyway,’ she says.