All About Darts

During the second of a series of brutal summer droughts, Wayne 'Corky' Haslip was born in Nelson hospital carpark, January 15, 1949, the youngest of five children. Amongst the bright yellow landscape that lay stretched and desiccated like a tanned rabbit pelt, his shrill squall fettered his exhausted mother's ears. Three hundred kilometers away grandfather Larry's coffin was lowered, then bumped, and finally hit the muddy clades of a churchyard under the heavy roll of the Manawatu sky. Wayne's family moved to Palmerston North in the 1950s when his father inherited his dad's dairy farm and a dozen pigs. The young Haslip boy was a dreamer and told his father "I will change the world" ad nauseam. His father warned him to belt up and then whacked him, anyway. Pubs were open until 6 pm.

Under a mop of bright red hair and conspicuous buck teeth, Wayne plodded into the Commercial Tavern at sixteen and watched goggle-eyed among the beer and fags as hairy armed farmers floated and thumped darts. A pig farmer jostled alongside him and placed a dart in Wayne's hand. Suddenly, his fingers felt like flippers, the thin, cool barrel of the dart slipping and sliding through them. An urgent rap on the back from the pig farmer moved him forward violently and to the casual observer, Wayne calmly raised his hand, flinging the dart at the rings and numbers. It hit the bullseye. As the shadow of the macrocarpa outside streaked across the window, the radio in the corner of the pub hissed that the nuclear-capable submarine, The U.S.S. Halibut visited Wellington.

Wayne left school a year later and met Beth on the dairy farm he worked part-time at. Sometime over the next week, when the weather packed in and the cacophony of the dirty westerly wind drove in, Wayne joggled a bed with Beth at The Café de Paris in Palmerston North. She fell pregnant and he married her. Wayne couldn't get along with his boss on the farm, but clumping over discarded cigarette wrappers, repeatedly fetching his thrown darts every night of the week and on competition weekends, he made it to the nationals. On the same day his daughter was born, the family dairy farm went under. His father had a heart attack. The day after the funeral, Wayne was at the pub, undistracted by the new television schussing like a distant sea, and pummeled darts into the cork, one after another.

Wayne took a job at the local freezing works. He relished cutting and slicing large animals. He also seemed to have an aptitude for tossing his boning knife at the rats, pinning them to the wall. Beth worked part-time at a restaurant but lost the job when in a mix-up drove her XT Falcon on the designated carless day because Wayne was too drunk to take her. Their daughter Darlene was now twelve years old and a tomboy. Despite all the crazes; hula hoops, 3-D Viewfinder, marbles, and even knucklebones, she began to take an interest in Wayne's darts medals and rosette ribbons. Wayne cursed the Springbok captain on the pub TV who was covered in dusty flour as he asked the New Zealand public if they had an air force.

On his day off, security guards swarmed the evening shift, and like a wild west robbery, workers were told to lay down their knives. The works were closed down from the next day and Wayne soon found work at the dairy factory at Longburn. Darlene threw a triple twenty to win the lower North Island Darts Championship. She told Wayne she wanted to be a professional. He shifted and shuffled on his one good leg, wincing at the ball grinding into the socket at the top of his thigh bone, but it is a watershed moment for him and he was excited for a few days. Beth went to live with her sister in Te Awamutu when Darlene moved to Wellington Polytechnic for the hairdressing course. On his ute radio, Wayne heard that Kurt Cobain had died of suicide.

Darlene said to meet him beside the bucket fountain in Cuba Street. Wayne reckoned it was not spectacular. He thought the streams of water clunked down from their undramatic height and busted into a discolored pool. He offered her a hotel lunch, but she wanted a mall lunch. They compromised and sat on a bench underneath a pohutukawa, halfway up Mount Victoria. They still heard the roar of competition from the traffic below but the wheeling and shrieks of the seagulls suited his mood. He looked at his daughter's strong wrists from all those years of darts practice and he felt he wanted to enjoy their shared presence. That night an avalanche on Mount Cook reduced its height by 10.5 meters.

A blowout halfway to the airport made Wayne miss Darlene's plane flight to Sydney. Beth turned to leave the departure lounge just as Wayne wheezed in. The rain glinted on his cheeks but Beth thought he looked as if he was crying. He called in sick at work and watched the highlights of the inaugural World Darts Championship on television. He was mowing the lawn when the postman, grinning, waved a postcard at him from the driveway. It was a photo of a big red rock and an almost ineligible scrawl across the back, "we're getting married." The wording itched his mind for the next few days. He began to lose interest in the news. A young couple with two children and a dog moved in next door to him. He enjoyed rattling the fence each morning making the dog really go off.

To prepare for the afternoon shift at the factory, Wayne allowed himself an hour with a proven bourbon. It gave him a spark and fizzle.  In the evening he returned to the house and Dimitri from work came round with his vodka and thick-bottomed glasses. Dimitri wanted to play darts but Wayne wanted to talk. Wayne liked the shared experiences they had, grimacing at each other's tales of job loss, divorce, and fatherhood. The next morning, with his head ringing and his mouth dry and flinty, Wayne had what he thought was a vision. For a time, he felt he could trample all troubles into the bracken, but then he worried when someone at work said he was a noisy breather. Wayne concurred, and keyed up about his heart, listened to the air whisper in and out of his nose before he slept every night.

The pressures of the world faded when Darlene smiled at him through the window of the bus. As she stepped onto the curb, the lights of the distant shops beamed like ochre stars behind the soft hair of the six- month old boy cradled in her arms. Over the next few months, the extra company of daughter and baby in the house undid Wayne's hollowness and nourished how he felt about life. The frost settled on the lawn like a snowfall, but inside the Haslip household, the light in the living room blazed long into the night. Every dart the father and daughter heaved seemed to reaffirm their relationship.

The next year was tough on the Haslip family. Beth remarried but then fell ill with stage four cancer and soon died. Wayne went part-time and began sleeping a lot. Darlene worked on the house's neglected section. She carved up the vegetable plots and replaced them with grass. She met Brian at the local hardware store and two weeks later decided to move in with him over at Whanganui with her toddler. Wayne spent a lot of time in bed. He sweated a lot and it pooled in the hollow pit between his neck and collarbone. The sweat glistened as his chest very slowly rose and fell. He felt the urge to start throwing out his belongings and keepsakes. He sent five dartboards to the charity shop.

In early spring, on a Wednesday in the first week of October, Wayne could hear the birds but didn't immediately wake. His chest hurt but he sucked up the pain and thought about calling Darlene. He didn't. He believed suddenly that the birds had gathered because it was a special day. The sun's light filtered through the thin curtains and he felt the heat gently paw at his flesh. He tightened his closed eyes just as his life's embers floated, gleaming in his chest. Inwardly, he smiled. In darts terms, he had exceeded all his points to go out.

Now begins a peaceful life.

Stephen O'Connor is a short story and nonfiction writer. His short fiction has appeared in Takahe, Flash Frontier, Headland and Crannog Magazine among other places. He teaches modern Japanese history and culture at university.