Photo by Daniel J. Schwarz / Unsplash

Paul put the last bucket of brushes into the van and drove out from Paint the Town's base in Richmond. It was a calm blue morning. What a relief to have a break from the wind blowing dust on to his paint before it dried and threatening to knock him off the ladder. At 7am it was already hot, a full-on summer day, too good for work but needs must. There was classical music playing on the van radio – of all things! Bark or something the announcer seemed pleased about. Paul stabbed a few buttons, failed to get a tune he liked and silenced it.

He set off down the bypass and instead of turning off to go through Stoke, which was often quicker, he carried on by the sea. It was smooth, inviting. Lucky he was in the work van and not his own ute which always had his paddle board in the back, ready for a good day. He might have been tempted to go out, just for a few minutes, on a day like this. Last time he succumbed the minutes turned into more than an hour and he'd got back to 21 missed calls from Barbara. He hadn't listened to her messages, just scurried to the job with a story about his son being sick and Paul having to stay with him till his partner came off night shift. The client said what a good dad he was. Little did she know there was fat chance of being left to care for his son.

He missed another turn for Stoke and cruised along Rocks Road with the window down to savour the sea breeze and the view of Fifeshire Rock and Haulashore Island. Some paddlers were out there already, gliding over the shiny greenstone sea. Paul felt a twist in his gut. He should be out there too. It was his happy place, almost the only one left now he was on a court-ordered treatment programme. He was sticking to it, in the hope he would see his son again. Since Fi left, taking Xavier 'home' to Northland, he hadn't even had a phonecall with him. Fi said he needed to settle in, but surely the lad needed his dad too.

Oops, he was at the Boathouse and had missed Richardson St. He'd have to loop back through town. Late again, probably blown his final warning. He took a last deep breath of the sea air before the road curved round past the port.

Somehow he missed Trafalgar St too and found himself on the open highway. He couldn't make himself turn back. He didn't want to finish Jan's job anyway. She'd turned into another client from Hell, all smiles to your face then calls behind your back to Boris to complain about lateness or the tiniest drip of paint stripper on the floor. Then a bollocking from Boris. Worse than the army.

Barbara hung up her bag with one hand and picked up the phone with the other. Technically she didn't start till 8.30 but she couldn't let it ring.

'Paint the Town, Barbara speaking, how may I help?'  

'Good morning, Jan. Paul's on his way. The van's gone from the yard. I'm sure he won't be long.'

The morning sped by. She was about to get a coffee from Brew to You next door when the phone rang again.

'Really? Jan, I'm so sorry. I hope he hasn't had an accident. I'll give him a call and get back to you.'

In the long term car park in Picton, on the dashboard of a brightly coloured Paint the Town van, a phone jiggled till the call ended.

Out in the harbour the Kaiarahi was making for Cook Strait. Paul sat with his feet up on a bench, picturing Xavier's little face when he rocked up at Kaikohe Primary.