On her way to last night’s BNZ Literary Awards dinner, Julie Helean, winner of the premier category Katherine Mansfield Award, noticed an Air New Zealand plane at Wellington Airport dressed in black with one of those “We’re Crazy About Rugby” signs on it. Wouldn’t it be nice, she said, as she thanked BNZ during her acceptance speech, if there were airplanes with “We Love Literature” signs.
A lovely thought, in just one of four delightful acceptance speeches, where humility was to the fore in a way you can only hope these writers cling to if they go on to enjoy the success so many previous winners of the awards have had. As one of the judges, Laurence Fearnley, said after the first couple of these speeches, “in my family it’s a joke that I can barely watch the news without starting to cry. I was just listening to the two previous winners thinking that I will have to add the Katherine Mansfield Awards to the list of things that make me cry. And thank God my son isn’t here to ask me if I’m crying.”
Below, in the order they were announced, are all four winning stories, along with some of the judges’ and writers’ comments, and short podcast interviews. (Please forgive my booming and distorted voice in these – I was trying out a new microphone, which proved more sensitive than I expected.)
So, without further ado …
Short Short Story Award
This category, introduced last year, involves 150-word stories submitted via Facebook. There were 323 entries last year; this year there were 944. Judge Graeme Beattie described winner Chelsea Dempsey’s My Old Man as “beautiful and moving”. “To be able to be so heartrending in so few words is an outstanding achievement,” he said.
Born in 1993, Dempsey lives in Whanganui. “Over the last couple of years, I’ve had a lot of trouble with a lot of things and I’ve been told quite a few times that I’m never going to get anywhere and today has just proved everybody wrong,” she said. “So this is just amazing and I can’t wait to get home and rub it in everybody’s faces!”
To which she later added that the award “has opened my eyes to what I’m capable of and what a lot of people told me I can’t do”.
Good for her. (You can see why Fearnley was in tears.)
My Old Man
Olive walls, slowly closing in; suffocating and strangling. I trot faster. ‘Ward 46′. Shrill screams escape the throats of frightened toddlers, whose tiny limbs shake furiously like mine. “NO! I don’t want to!” Deep breath. In. Out. In. Out. Pause and turn left. Orange chrysanthemums shrieking mid-life crisis compliment a long white bed, vacating the naked room. A pasty man lies lifelessly on the bed; worn brown bed socks hanging out the end. A young woman in distress, quietly sobbing to herself. The steady pulse of stiletto heels trailing off; the heartbeat machine in unison. I look down. A warm, wrinkled face smiles up at me. My grasp of his hand tightens as a single tear falls down my cheek. My Old Man.
Young Writer Award
Eighteen-year-old Year 13 student Emily Hunter, from Hamilton, won with Of Dust, which judge Eleanor Catton admired for how it dared “to wrestle with philosophical uncertainty and even better to leave that uncertainty unresolved”.
The story describes the excavation of three sheep skeletons from a pit. “The narrator looks at three skulls, touches them, and thinks about them,” said Catton. “Then the story ends. If this sounds simple, it is. If it sounds easy, it isn’t.”
The art of fiction, she said, involves knowing what to leave out as much as knowing what to put in, “and the writer of this winning story has that very rare gift”.
Hunter, who hopes to begin a degree in biomedical engineering at university next year, said: “My story is based on an actual Sunday afternoon when I came across some sheep skulls in a paddock and they got me thinking. I wrote it the very next day in an English lesson while listening to my teacher talk. I wasn’t listening. I never intended for anyone else to read it but right about now I’m glad I changed my mind. I originally called it A Story of Dust, but it seemed fairly obvious to me that it was a story, so it just became Of Dust.”
Yesterday I found some sheep skeletons in the back paddock. They were just laying on the grass from when Dad cleaned out the drainage system. The reason there were sheep bones in it was because we used to think it was an offal pit. And then, when the water table rose every winter, and the garage and downstairs bathroom flooded, and we couldn’t flush the downstairs toilet, Dad decided we needed a drainage system.
So he started digging a big hole around the septic tank. Then he noticed that there was already a pipe draining the tank, which stretched off into the distant underground, but in the general direction of the fence.
Then he dug a series of holes; smaller, following the pipe. After the hole in the vegetable garden, he had a hunch that the pipe lead to the offal pit, and that it was, in fact, not an offal pit.
Upon confirmation, in the form of a simultaneous flush of our three toilets, Dad explained to me that our flooding issues were mainly caused by the fact that the soil in the pit didn’t drain, as there was too much black gunk and ‘bug bone’ in the bottom, which sealed the water in.
This meant we needed to drain the anaerobic water, and dig the stuff out of the bottom. And we needed a scoop, to remove the three dead sheep from out of it.
And that is how I came to find them the other day. Three skulls on the grass. The two larger of them had been in there for about a decade, and the anaerobic bacteria in the water had stained them black on one side. The third was a young lamb from last winter. This skull was small and white and fragile.
I picked them up, kicking around the sun bleaching wool, returning to white during the days, to find anything else, and then lined them up on the grass, surrounded by various debris, ribs and wool and vertebrae littering the area.
Holding the smallest in my hand, I noticed that the juvenile had died early, and the bones in the face were not fused. As it had hit the ground, falling from the scoop, the cheek bone had fractured, and the right upper jaw was elsewhere in the grass.
When I found it, I tried to push the complex arrangement of bone fragments back into their original place.
I held each in turn, deciding which was in the best condition, so that I could clean it and preserve it and put it somewhere to keep. At some point, the hunk of bone had stopped being the head of a sheep, belonging to the creature, and had become part of the dark cold underworld in the pit. Now, I held it, preparing to think I owned it. I wondered when the transition had been.
My mind then moved to the products of multiple archaeological digs, bringing forth human skulls, prehistoric or simply ancient in their burial. No longer a man or a name, they were property of governments and councils and museums. They have shed the right to be considered human, and with this, they have shed their human rights. No longer having the right to own anything. Not property, not possession, not his own head.
And now I held in my right hand the head of a dead sheep. Gone was the flesh, the eyes, the brain. This was no longer a sheep, no conscience resided inside. I held no more than a pile of dirt or ash. And no more was there a conscience in the head of prehistoric man, left alone in the ground, it would have become no more than dirt or ash, and be no longer man, but earth.
So I, upright on the earth, holding the head, standing in the paddock of other living sheep, wondered at the difference between this skull, and the one in the creature beside me, and the one in my own head. I thought about the difference between my self now, and the moment after I have left myself.
On this earth that will one day consume me, soon become me. What am I now that I will become dirt? Can I own what is nothing? Certainly not with any permanence.
It strikes me now that our feeble knowledge of ownership is fleeting, temporary and cyclical. All that I physically possess will one day be dirt. What I perceive that is mine will soon be someone else’s. My own body will then be returned to the literal dust.
This was a very deep encounter with a dead thing.
Novice Writer Award
This was won by Nicole Tan, who was born in 1988 in Kuala Lumpur and moved to Auckland with her family in 2003. She’s a single mother who works as a research assistant at the University of Auckland, from where she graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and a Bachelor of Arts in English (part of which involved an undergraduate writing course run by Emily Perkins).
She says she spends most of her limited free time “writing on the internet, in the form of personal blogs, Facebook and other social media updates”.
Tan’s story, Up and Down and Over, was my own favourite of the winners, and I couldn’t agree more with judge Laurence Fearnley, who said: “The really, really fantastic thing about the winner’s entry is the maturity and restraint of the writing. The winner doesn’t try and force the action, doesn’t show all her cards at once – which is something that I often do and other writers do. If you have an idea, something where you have an emotional impact, you tend to show it all at once. But she has the skill to show restraint. And she allows the story to unfold at its own pace and its own rhythm. And there are beautiful modulations in the pace. And it’s really nicely structured … As the story unfolds, more and more information comes in about this woman and her background. And it’s revealed so slowly and so carefully that it’s actually a magical story. It’s spine-chilling, and the dialogue is so believable and so pure … It shows a real confidence as a writer in allowing the story to unfold and develop and gain force and then at the end it just settles. It doesn’t have that smarty-pants ending. There’s no big earthquake jolt. It’s just a beautiful calm settling. And the tranquility and the stillness really captured my attention.”
Thanking her parents, with whom she lives, Tan said they “were even more surprised than I was that I won this, because they didn’t know I’d entered it. I hadn’t told anyone.”
Up and Down and Over
Right now they’ve been flying for way too many hours and Jenny’s throat is scratchy with thirst. When she tries to talk the sounds flake like fish scales from the insides of her mouth falling to her lap. On her armrest is a button with a cartoonish human silhouette on it. She pushes it. A light goes on above her head and nobody comes and she can’t just flip the catch of her seatbelt and make her way to the kitchen because the fasten-your-seatbelt sign is glowing. Besides, that will mean leaving Liam alone in his bassinet and she can’t do that, not in such a place with so many people around.
Liam folds into nearly-half to fit inside the too-small bassinet fixed to the bulkhead and sometimes he stretches and his ankles poke over the edges. Next to her is a woman who has her own baby enveloped in pale blue linens and who fits so much more neatly into the airline bassinet. Liam yawns, kicks the air and throws a fist over the sides. No sound from the baby next door but the other mother looks up, the hems of her mouth going taut.
“Liam’s too big,” Jenny tells her.
“Isn’t he?” The woman cranes her neck and peers at Liam. “So is Michael here. He’s going to be such a big boy at the rate he’s growing.”
“Liam eats a lot.”
“Michael, too. I’ve been feeding him twelve times a day since he was born. It’s a good thing I don’t sleep much. He’s such a bundle, isn’t he?”
Wrapped to the chin, the baby looks like a pale blue packet with a head. Though his eyes are closed Jenny can imagine their bulge and the big stare hidden behind the light swell of his warm pink eyelids.
“I’m Jenny,” Jenny says to the woman. She remembers Ren telling her that she shouldn’t stay at home so much, that she should go out and talk to other mothers. Bonding with other women through motherhood will be good for you, Ren had said and they both laughed because it sounded like he’d read out from one of those emotional health care leaflets for pregnant women and new mothers.
She doesn’t know where Ren is now – Ren, who is always so anxious and tall and systematic.
“Melinda,” the other mother replies. She gestures to a man seated on her other side, face hidden behind a newspaper. “And that’s Rae.”
Rae pretends not to hear and Jenny quickly takes the smile off her face. She pulls at the catch of her seatbelt and stands up. A flight attendant coming down the aisle tells her, “Please sit down and fasten your seatbelt. We’re experiencing minor turbulence.”
“Can I have a glass of water,” Jenny says.
“I’ll get you one right away,” says the flight attendant and goes back up the aisle and does not come back.
* * * *
Ren was there when Jenny woke up the day after Liam was born. Liam was in a clear plastic bassinet set on some sort of trolley and lined with white rough linens, all of which had the word ‘Hospital’ printed on them.
“How are you feeling?” he said sitting at the edge of her bed. That was how she would like to remember him, sitting next to her but with a strip of space between them and with something like concern in his face and in the uneasy curvature of his back. She would like to remember him asking her how she was feeling because he rarely asked her such a thing once they’d left the hospital and gone home.
“Fine,” she said. Liam’s crying had broken up her sleep into neat three hour pieces. Twice she hadn’t heard him. The midwife had come in and placed a hand on her shoulder shaking it and she’d sat up, disoriented in the dark ward, her ears filling up with Liam’s atonal keening.
“You need to wake up and feed your baby,” the midwife told her.
Ren went over to Liam’s bassinet, which had been wheeled into a patch of sun. The midwife had said that his jaundice needed sunning. Liam was tiny and his face was crumpled from the light and the hairs that stuck out from beneath his beanie were thin and stiff. Ren didn’t pick him up.
“Your parents called again this morning,” he said.
“Tell them I’m fine and they don’t have to worry,” Jenny said. “Tell them Liam’s well and we’re leaving the hospital soon.”
But Ren told her to tell them herself.
* * * *
Liam wakes up and tries to stand up in his bassinet and the whole thing shudders. Melinda looks up in alarm. Jenny had not buckled down the thick cloth strap because she hates the scrape of Velcro being pulled apart in her ears. She lifts him down.
The flight attendant appears with a tray of drinks and Liam gestures furiously at the orange juice. Jenny takes a cup of juice even though she wants some ice cold water for herself. But two cups of drinks and Liam all in a narrow airplane seat are out of the question.
“Ice,” Liam says. Jenny picks the slippery cubes out from the juice and presses them into his gums and he sucks on them, rounding off the corners with his tongue. At home, Liam eats all the ice and sometimes she forgets to refill the ice cube trays in the freezer and then he would lie on the ground, pedalling his feet through the air and howling.
“Aren’t you afraid he’ll choke?” It’s Melinda who, just as Jenny had thought, has been watching her.
“Liam’s smart. He knows not to swallow,” Jenny replies, though Melinda looks unconvinced. Her own baby has barely stirred throughout the flight.
The ice runs out and so does Liam’s patience.
“Ice,” he says again and when Jenny replies, “There isn’t any more”, his face twists into the beginnings of a tantrum. She can almost feel the countless eyes of all the other passengers in the cabin perforating the back of her head.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she says quickly and unclasps her seatbelt and gulps down the rest of the juice, feeling the sting of the orange pulp passing down her throat. She carries him up the aisle fast as she can to the back of the cabin. Perhaps she can stand outside the restrooms for a few minutes. It will be a tiny change of environment for Liam but still it might amuse him for long enough.
Melinda walks up the aisle and stands next to her. Michael must still be asleep. She waves her hand at the restroom door which has a sign reading ‘Occupied’ in red lettering on it.
“That’s how I feel all the time,” says Melinda.
“There’s no time for myself anymore,” Jenny agrees.
“I walk around in my pyjamas all day and sometimes I’m too tired to cook so I eat baby food right out of the jar. We stock up on those jars of tasteless sludge.”
“And I had to give up smoking.”
They both laugh and Liam wriggles in Jenny’s arms and turns to face Melinda.
“You’re such a big boy, aren’t you,” Melinda coos, stretching the syllables in her mouth so Jenny can hear them rattling from the back of her throat.
For the shortest moment she wants to know more about Melinda – does she sleep well in the night? Does Michael wake up crying and refuse to go back to sleep until she tucks him into her own bed? Does she go out for walks together with Rae and with Michael in a stroller and look like such a tidy and attractive family? Does she do anything differently?
“The things we do,” Melinda starts to say and Jenny wants to say yes, yes I know. Oh god. The things we do. But at that moment, one of the restroom doors click and the ‘Occupied’ sign disappears and a man steps out.
“You go,” says Jenny and Melinda goes in and the red words on the door slide into place again.
* * * *
She remembered all the months passing one after another. Months and months of excess laundry, the cloying scent of formula, fractured sleep, and Liam, swelling out steadily in her arms, month by month. He began pulling himself up on the cot rail. He began testing the edge of the air where the sofa ended.
Some days she would do nothing except sit on the sofa with him and several packs of chips where she spent hours at a time eating. Her teeth would grind as she passed the pieces through them and the clack of enamel against enamel resonated in her head long after she stopped. She would feed Liam crushed chip pieces and he seemed to like the grit of salt on his gums.
Ren came home after dark and by then Liam would have fallen asleep on her lap and the packets were empty and her eyes felt like they were full of chip granules and her eyelids were greasy because she’d been rubbing at them all day.
“Liam is wearing me down,” Jenny told Ren. “I don’t know what to do with him.”
“Everyone says the first year is the hardest,” Ren said. They might not have believed each other.
Ren went out for short walks often and once Jenny had tried to come along with Liam. She’d been such a mess, trying to find wet wipes and a spare blanket for the stroller and Ren who’d been waiting at the door said finally, “I’ll only be going down the street and back.” Then he’d left.
Some evenings Ren would cook and Jenny would put Liam to bed. Other times Liam wouldn’t sleep and both Ren and Jenny would take turns bouncing him up and down on their laps or in their arms and then Ren would give up and he’d still cook dinner and nobody would eat.
* * * *
Shortly after the lights in the cabin are dimmed and the passengers and seats behind Jenny look like rows and rows of dark wavelengths, Michael wakes up. He grizzles and Melinda jumps up from her seat, peels back the thick cloth strap from the top of the bassinet and scoops Michael out. Her forearm looks like a broad paddle.
Melinda pushes Michael’s face into her breast and pulls a blanket over him and to Jenny they look like a faraway untouchable pair, sealed off in their own glass bubble.
Liam is asleep on her chest. She’d been walking up and down the aisle, Liam’s head lying on her shoulder, up and down, up and down, rocking from one foot to the other, looking stupid and hopeless to the passengers she’d passed by over and over. Finally, the flight attendant had told her to sit down because the fasten-your-seatbelt sign had come on again.
It takes nearly forty-five minutes to feed Michael. He doesn’t go back to sleep but sits on Melinda’s lap and sometimes she passes him over to Rae on her other side. They pass him back and forth to each other, rocking him on their laps and pouring their simulated baby talk all over him, and he gurgles as he’s jolted up and down, his head like a dark balloon in the dimness, the moist vowels tumbling from his mouth.
And after a while, Melinda puts Michael on Rae’s lap, gets up and stretches. “I need a break,” she says and walks out toward the restrooms and does not come back for some time.
Rae takes out his phone and shows it to Michael and in the darkened cabin Jenny can see the screen – it has bright blue, yellow, pink, green and red oddly-shaped blocks falling down unendingly and piling up higher and higher. Michael swipes at the phone, trying to pick off those little pieces of colour.
* * * *
Jenny’s ring would not come off her finger. In the bathroom light she could see the hazy fingerprints left behind when she’d twisted and twisted at it. She’d been getting fat – and all this time she’d thought that Liam was wearing her down. In fact she couldn’t remember much about the last few months except the tatty brown sofa and Liam at her knee with his hands batting at the torn chip packets and the chips disintegrating between the grind of her teeth.
All day long she felt the ring sitting at the base of her finger. She felt its circle, its shine, and its grip made warm by her own flesh. Ren came home and for that evening they cooked together and though it was one of those nights that Liam wouldn’t sleep, they ate all the dinner. Liam could walk slowly by then and he was learning new words fast and sometimes he picked off the tail-ends of Jenny’s sentences and chewed them in his mouth and tried them out.
She showed Ren the stuck ring, “I’m getting fat,” she said. “Did you notice?”
“Oh, come on.”
“Didn’t you notice,” she said again.
Ren said again, oh, come on Jen. Oh come on it’s alright. People are supposed to grow older and thicker as they age. It’s change. It’s natural.
Jenny looked at him but he didn’t seem to be any different to her. “You’re right,” she said, though now she was sure she didn’t believe him. “I’m going to do the dishes.”
“Let me help you,” Ren said.
“No I can do it.”
“You’re tired. You’ve been looking after Liam the whole day.” He started stacking the plates and glasses on the table. The big ones at the bottom, the small ones at the top. Ren’s life was full of symmetry.
“No, no, I’m fine.” Jenny snatched the pile of crockery from beneath his hands but her foot hooked around a chair leg and the plates and glasses jerked from her grasp and smashed onto the floor.
“Look what’s happened now,” Ren said. His face had tightened and he put one hand on the back of the chair she’d tripped over and knocked askew, and straightened it. She noticed for the first time, the circuitry of dark veins pulsing around his eyes and the pointed white knuckles of his hand, still clenched over the back of the chair.
But she was getting angry, too. “I said I can do it.”
“Fine, you do it,” Ren said. “You handle yourself.”
He’d gone out for one of his walks after that. Liam toddled over to the jagged mess and began poking at a shard of plate.
“Liam, that’s sharp,” Jenny said skipping over the broken pieces. She picked him off the floor and stuck him on the sofa.
“You stay here.”
“Shaah-ahp,” Liam said, smiling.
* * * *
Finally, the meltdown that Jenny has been dreading. It’s only to be expected, since Liam is seldom brought out and never for such a great distance. She’d put him back down in the bassinet after the cramp in her legs got too much and now he wakes up and his feet are dangling in the air and the pillow has a different smell and his arms are caught up in this new scratchy blanket. The lights have not come on yet so everyone is still supposed to be sleeping. Liam lets out a howl followed by another and another and instantly Jenny feels all the eyes of the cabin including Melinda’s jerk open and spin about to fix on her.
She snaps off her seatbelt, fumbles for a bottle of pre-mixed milk in her bag and picks Liam up but he kicks and struggles in her arms.
“I hope he’s alright,” Melinda says, but her eyes are on Michael, who’s tucked away in slumber again.
Jenny carries Liam up the aisle again. Up and back down and up again. The movement quiets him and he puts the bottle in his mouth and sucks the milk in. She stops outside the restrooms. All the doors have green ‘Vacant’ signs on them.
It’s been such a long flight, and an even longer time since Liam had been born. She doesn’t know what time it is now inside this cabin with its lights dimming and brightening and its signs flipping on and off – whether it’s Liam’s bedtime or his breakfast time or that time in the evening when he starts to get wound-up and wants to be held continuously until he falls asleep. They might be close to landing, though. Her parents would be at the airport to pick her up and see Liam for the first time. They didn’t know that Ren wasn’t coming.
It’s too much, Ren and Jenny had agreed. Sometimes people need a break to restore order in a family, Ren had said. We can work things out later. It had been terrifying, not the thought of leaving Ren, but of packing her things and Liam’s things and walking out of their home and wondering if Liam could handle the distance and the journey and if she’d missed anything that Liam would miss and – oh, Liam, Liam, Liam. Everything Liam.
The flight attendant passes and Jenny says, “Can you please get me a new seat?”
“I’m sorry but this is a very full flight,” the flight attendant says.
“But I’m disturbing the baby and his mother next to me.”
“I’m sure she’ll understand.”
That was what Jenny had thought hours earlier, when she and Melinda were both standing at this very spot. For the thinnest of moments then, there had been something they were both holding on to, threading them together for all their differences, something that might be shared. And then it was lost.
Liam holds up the empty bottle in Jenny’s face. He’s beaming now, with that same pleased smile that comes on every morning after his first bottle of the day.
“Look,” he says.” “Gone!”
Katherine Mansfield Award
Ironically, the story judged winner by Elizabeth Smither was called Misjudged.
The story is based in part on author Julie Helean’s own after-school duties when she was a girl, helping her tailor father in Dunedin. He, however, was a much nicer father than the one in the story, she says in the podcast below. And in her acceptance speech she attributed to him and her upbringing the passion and perserverance needed by a writer as much as by a craftsman.
Now in her 50s, Helean is a recent Masters in Creative graduate from the University of Auckland, has one novel under her belt (The Open Accounts of an Honesty Box), and is now fired up to finish her second.
She described lugging a parcel around like in her story as being a good metaphor for novel writing: “Moving this thing that you love around … you really need to get it delivered and safely across the threshold.”
After getting an early story published in Landfall, she’d thought getting published was pretty easy, she said. But that was in 1997, and with no stories published since she realised opportunities such as the Katherine Mansfield Award were few and far between.
It was, she said, “a real turning point” in her life – a sign to take writing seriously and do more of it.
My father has runner beans legs; worsted wool-covered legs that run on forever and disappear under his jacket. I follow them up the twenty six stairs to his workroom, watching the leather of his soles hit the lino in their usual pattern: one step, one step, one step, two, two, two at a time. He complains to mum that us kids trail behind him, scuttling like feckless chickens and without much forward momentum. But we are not slow; Blair, wee Alice and me. It is dad who is fast. He may as well be a circus performer on stilts – the way he covers the ground between his shop and the place at the very top of Rattray Street where you can park for free. What else can we do but hoppity-run in his wake?
‘I have a job for you,’ he calls from the workroom. But it can’t be bringing in the shop sign because he’s just done that himself. Then, ‘Did you work hard at school?’ he asks. He turns away from his workbench to study me and to lift my satchel from my back.
‘Yes,’ I say, and add before he can ask, ‘No one got detention again today. Sister Mary Aquinas is gone on some retreat thing.’
‘Ah,’ says dad. ‘Well glad to hear it. You must have worked hard then.’
Now that I’ve regained my breath, he tells me to run down the hill to fetch a parcel. It’s important this one – they all are – the parcels that come from Scotland. The station depot will close in twenty minutes. I take my instructions with my eye level to the button of his jacket. The leather-thatched button is raised on its little brass eye; sits proud against the thick pile of the Harris Tweed. I take hold of it, this warm nugget of leather that rolls against my fingers, smooth as a chestnut.
‘Okay?’ he asks. ‘You got all that? I need to take it home tonight. There’s more sewing to do this evening.’
All across the stockroom wall, bolts of tartan and tweed and worsted cloth sit in huge shelves that run from ceiling to floor, like books in a library. They lie piled on their sides, one on top of the other so you can see and touch their rolled up ends – the higgledy piggledy, mashed-up colours of them.
‘Mrs Hassan taught us today,’ I say, pointing to the wall of tartans. ‘She wore the Macleod.’
‘What? You had another lay teacher? In a kilt?’
‘Yes, no. Mrs Hassan’s covering for Sister Aquinas while she’s away. She taught English mostly, but not with a kilt on. She had the Macleod in a scarf.’ I wave my hands to show how it was tied low across her left shoulder.
‘The muted Macleod was it?’
‘The yellow one.’
‘Goodness, the Lewis. There’s not many women can wear that colour. Drains the face to a bilious beige.’ Dad pulls a face and his glasses lurch sideways.
‘She looks nice,’ I say, thinking how the scarf hung like a caress of gold around Mrs Hassan’s neck. ‘She has brown skin. It sets the yellow off nicely.’
His hand reaches up to the high shelf where the Macleod of Lewis tartan sits and he pats the yellow head of it. The Macleod of Lewis pokes its cheeky buttercup head boldly out from the sea of muted green and blue tartans.
‘This teacher? She’s dark skinned, you say? Like what? She another Lebanese I suppose, with a name like that?’
I do not know exactly what Lebanese is, but I know that dad does not like totally these. He says Paulette in my form class, and our netball goal defence, is one. I bite my nail. Mrs Hassan is definitely likeable. She walked into our year seven class on proper heels, with caramel lipstick on smiling lips, and did not seem the slightest bit inclined to give detention to anyone. She taught us alliteration and gave us an exercise to do in pairs and later she called us her cloistered clever-clogs class. We laughed. Later she made us laugh again. It was not at all like the approach sister Aquinas takes to teaching. The nuns that teach us are all about dastardly devils and demons.
‘No. I don’t think so.’
But I have upset my father. He looks down at me over glasses that perch on the end of his nose. His green eyes are cut with red and white.
‘Can I please have Mr Wallace’s parcel,’ I pant at the wire-headed man in the depot. He knows me, this man, and gives me a wink and laughs while I get my breath back. Then his head is poking through the sliding window in his wall. ‘It’s a bolt,’ he shouts. ‘Eleven kilograms this one. Best if you tell Gerald to swing by in the car for that one tomorrow.’
‘Um,’ I say. ‘I’m to collect it tonight before closing. Dad said so. We’re to take it home.’
So he leans it against me, this parcel; asks me if I’m fine to wait outside with it. The way he talks, he must think that dad is coming by with the car, but of course that is not the case. Dad is still working and I have this job to do for him. So it is my parcel now, a weight that pushes against me, heavier than my brother Blair. It stands as tall and thick as him – tall as a body, a brown paper-wrapped body as high as my nose, smelling like a dusty road. It is, I now feel, a fence post of a parcel that has no handles or holds, which has no purchase, can only be hugged to stop it from doing what it seems compelled to do: topple. The thick brown paper is seamless, almost oily under my fingers but I take a grip around the trunk of the thing and step backwards to see if it can be dragged.
We have gone two steps together when the thing lurches off balance and I’m thrown sideways, my elbow hitting the door jamb and the thing threatening to tumble to the floor. But I have it. Around the waist. I have the measure of it. Eleven kilograms I understand is heavy. It is a weight that carries authority and opinion. This parcel of mine has a mind of its own. It might be managed as the depot man did: wedged under his arm with two hands around its girth. Dad carries his fabric balanced high on his shoulder as he takes the stairs one, one, one, two at a time. I can do neither.
The depot is closing. His fingertips drum against the counter as I back out the door, thump over the door step and onto the street. That’s five steps taken. So it can be done: this task assigned to me by my father. Out I go with a clutch, a heave, a jerk. We shuffle backwards onto the paving, the bolt of material clutched tight against my school uniform while I hug and scuff and pull it towards me. Together we head towards Stuart Street, my parcel jerking along the asphalt, a dead weight dragging in my footsteps. It’s wearing me out already, the way I have to heave my body backwards with every little step, all my weight forcing down my legs as I strain and grind my heels into the pavement. But it can be done.
At the pedestrian crossing, I wrestle the bolt away from me and lean it against the traffic lights. Then I stretch out my free hand, a gentle movement that makes shooting sparks spin around in my elbow. A pain so bright I hold my fingers out, as if there might be, should be, shafts of light dancing there. So on the crossing I try it in a different hold – top wedged under my right elbow and my left hand hugging and tugging and shuffling us crab-like over the grey, white, grey, white, markings of the crossing. My eyes fix on the road as we bump and jerk forward. The waiting cars are impatient. Their engines rev and puff hurry-up fumes while the peak time traffic builds and the gaze of the drivers prickles against the back of my neck. It’s hard work. But we are moving faster now, bump- bump- bump. Then it falls. The greasy pole of it dashes under my elbow and thunks down on the crossing to tumble into the gutter. But we are off the road, at least, and the cars are moving past us, gusts of their drive-by wind tugging at my gymfrock.
I can only raise the parcel’s head from the gutter. Then I squat across it to pull it higher onto the footpath. It’s hopeless. My fingers scrabble uselessly against paper slick with something new – a gritty black something that smears the paper and drips slowly back into the gutter.
‘Shall I help?’ asks a woman. She is waiting at the crossing. I hang my head. I can only see her nylons which are twisted a little at her ankle. Together we get the parcel upright and I tell her I’m fine now, and she says ‘blimm’n heck that’s a killer,’ and asks again about some help, and I say ‘fine thanks,’ and then the buzzer goes and I mutter a thank you as her nylons strike out onto the grey, white crossing.
My parcel won’t be carried – it’s as slippery and heavy as dad’s golf bag. There is nothing to do but clutch it and drag it and shuffle it backwards. I stop for breath outside the fish shop, closed for the night, and press my brow against the glass. Alongside me the parcel leans, its bottom now torn and the brown paper flaying out like tail feathers. And in amongst that, a flash of green, a vein of red, a glimpse of tartan spilling bright against the footpath. We are coming undone. There are two blocks to go, two streets to cross; the hill rising now, up towards the Octagon.
I wipe my face against the brown paper to clear the sweat and rub my hands down my uniform before I grasp it again – this parcel – this fabric that dad needs tonight.
‘Dad,’ I call from the bottom of the staircase. Me gasping so my voice sends a silly jelly-wobble of a call up the stairs. I hear his voice in muted drifts above me. He has a client. While I wait, I dry my hands again on my uniform and rest my chin heavy on its papered head.
‘Dad,’ I call again, but his voice does not alter, its weave of this and that business talk mixed with a lady’s upstairs. He will be standing with his tape measure round his neck and his glasses hung on the end of his nose. He will be busy with pins and pleats and tacking and chalk marks. It’s closing time. He’ll be getting his last job done. It is what he does. It’s what he tells us to do – to get the job done and no complaining, and why? Because hard work never killed anyone.
At least this parcel has something of a bulge to grab now. Just a small rupture where my fingers have worn the paper away, and there’s fabric underneath in two places, and with the fabric comes a handhold. It feels familiar now, the greasy paper, worn rough in places from handling, the slippery sheet of paper that is the address label, a square outline of white on the parcel. I take one step up to stand, knees bent on the first stair, and I hoist it up toward me, ease up on my tiptoes and strain it higher, a nudge higher, then bump. It seems it can be done. I have it. The great lump of it is now on the same step, teetering close to the edge and threatening to topple back down. But we have made the first step.
Now my knees have a jittery tremor in them. With my shoulder to the woodwork, I study the steps above me. They seem steep now, and narrow, with a smell of old wood polish and wool. These stairs are best taken at a run. Even dad’s ladies complain when they get to the workroom that they are ready for a sit down and cup of tea. But this workroom is better than the other one. Dad says this one is cheaper and has the morning sun. I wait and listen to the drift of my father’s voice above me.
‘Dad,’ I call again. Just a whisper into the top of the paper. He does not like being interrupted. ‘We all have to work hard,’ he will say, ‘everyone pulls their weight.’
I take another step up and haul the parcel up to join me. It seems it can be done. We fall into a rhythm – a step, a hug, a tug, a heave ho, and a bump. It’s a wrestle that has me straining and biting into my lip and clawing my fingers into the bruised insides of it. It comes easier, bump, haul, bump. Up and up we go.
It is not a good idea to look down, or around, or lose concentration, but I do. Six stairs from the top I glance to see where I have been and where I am to go. It’s only been a pause but I’m undone. Here balanced and sweating and panting on the stairs, I realise I have no strength left. I’m stranded here with the wretched parcel that has one mind – to topple. Let it pull you just slightly out of balance and it will tumble down the stairs, and we are one now, parcel and me. What a thing to think. And thinking has knocked the wind out of me. Suddenly. Like you’ve been walking along looking at the patterns on the pavement and not realised that you’ve wandered onto the road, right out into the five o’clock traffic. Like a stupid girl with no clues. All of a sudden this parcel seems sinister; this effort silly and misjudged. Maybe dad will be cross. He may have his parcel but I sense he may be cross with me.
Here come the tears. Here on the eighteenth step, they plop onto the parcel and rest in dark stains. My lips are dry. I rest them on the head of this thing and then I bite it – take the paper in my teeth and bite down, sinking my teeth into the skin of it and closing hard on the fabric underneath. I am half done, half undone, half finished. He tells mum when we moan or cry, that we are a bunch of melodramatics. Melodramatic is when you are over emotional and silly. But what can we do? He gives us jobs that are harder than Hades.
When Rachel took the parcel and drew it to her chest, she did not notice the rise of Arthur’s eyebrow. Nor did she hear him ask her again, with an inflection of irony, if an eleven kilogram bolt of fabric was not better carried up to the kiltmaker’s shop by the kiltmaker himself. That was what Arthur said, but what he thought was, that Gerald worked his kids hard, and actually they seemed all the better for it – compared say, to his own couldn’t-be-arsed son, Martin.
He thought this as he watched Rachel lug the parcel out the door – thought that the wispy girl with unravelling plaits had the same serious look as her father and the Scots could at least be admired for their grim determination. He saved his breath (because her entire concentration was on her task) as he watched her wrestle the parcel backwards out of the railway depot, and as he watched, he hoped the bottom of it would not rupture before her father came to collect her. It was after all, a parcel all the way from Scotland.
Rachel took the pedestrian crossing backwards before suddenly turning to walk sideways with it dragging under her arm. But it fell. The slippery length of it rolling away, thankfully into the gutter and not back into the five o’clock traffic. Then she headed up Stuart Street, her dead weight dragging heavily along the footpath, through the damp surface left by the afternoon shower.
He heard it. Her call. Faint it was, more of a gasp. Her dark plaits glued to her face, her cheeks swollen pink with exertion, tears, just a couple, forcing their way onto the top of the parcel. He heard it again – a mumble, the kind of poorly articulated stop-start sentence that elocution lessons were supposed to have fixed. He might have called back but he was in the fitting room with Edith Gulliver, checking the hemline on her Dress Beatrice kilt. He might have gone to check but he knew there would be nothing to see but a girl who had taken the best part of forty minutes to fetch a box of buckles from the depot.
It’s lovely, she was saying – Mrs Gulliver. She was saying how she could rightfully claim the Blackwatch, but the Dress Beatrice was something more of a fashion statement. ‘Bold but not brassy,’ she told the kiltmaker as she took a swish back and forth in front of the full length mirror. It was a question of course, and the tailor answered that ‘yes, it was bold, certainly bold, and no, not brassy, goodness no.’ He told Mrs Gulliver that what he wished, was for more women to step away from the muted and the ancient colours. ‘More youthful so the women’s magazines are claiming.’
‘I’d need more than a bright red kilt for that Mr Wallace. To be honest I’m calling this my survival gear. I’d be happy just to be seen on the pedestrian crossing. It’s clear that one becomes less and less visible with age. Particularly as an older woman, believe me. It’s a bright kilt for me, Gerald, that or a high visibility vest and a head lamp.’
‘Ha,’ laughed Gerald, shaking his head and sucking his lip as he remembered how Mrs Gulliver had been knocked over by a courier cyclist on Saint Andrew Street the year before. ‘It’s an attractive choice,’ he said. ‘One of my favourites, the Beatrice tartan. The red is offset so nicely by the white.’ She did look great in the kilt – Mrs Gulliver. She was eighty three with a narrow waist and legs that still managed eighteen holes of golf course on Mondays.
He heard it again – a rustle and thump on the stairs. Not a call, but a thumpety-bump, and then another. It sounded like the game she played, when she waited for him at closing time. Jumping down the stairs, two feet at a time. Jumping down one stair, then down two stairs. It was not a game for now, not when he had a client. He still needed the tea cups washed and the kitchenette tidied before they went home. And he still had to bundle up the twelve pipe band kilts to take home. Each one needed two buckles sewn on by hand. A small enough job at night which meant the kilts could be in the first post to Temuka next morning. He would sew them on tonight in front of the tele.
Rachel slid her fingers around the carcass of brown. The sides of the wretched thing were stained. The sides of the thing had torn through so now she had at least a hand-hold on the fabric where it bulged through the tears. The top was clad in paper, stained dark now with sweat and tears and dripping nose and also a bite – the teeth marks visible.
Heave and thump. Again she mastered another step, but she was still six stairs from the top and her fingers were pink, almost blistered, and her knees weak and wobbling with the strain. She did not know if she had six more stairs in her. Suddenly, at this point where the job seemed achievable, she was losing confidence. It seemed silly, this thing. Seemed really silly, holding a parcel beside her on the stair like it was some scruffy kid she’d brought home to play with, with socks down, shirt tail out, and school uniform all unravelled. It seemed wrong now, to be on this stair, in this wedlock state with this wretched thing. She saw herself on the staircase, stranded, balanced, precarious.
Dad might be cross.
Would he think she’d been stupid?
There’d been another time like this, now she thought about it. That time when she’d hopped in the car with the neighbour from down the flats. He’d said, ‘jump in’, and she’d seen the wicker basket on the seat, and so she did, and they’d gone to pick berries out the back of Bethune’s gulley. And she’d come home with a plastic bag full, and a suntanned nose, but dad had been cross and mum had been so cross she had cried and then inspected the bag in an angry way as if it contained poisoned mushrooms.
He might be cross now. She was trying to help, to do something useful. In the process she’d done something wrong. Maybe. It was hard to tell. But something beat in her temples like the hurry up, wake up, listen up banging that Sister Aquinas did on the desk with her ruler. It felt like that – like something wrong. To be here in this uncertain state. And with uncertainty came a great weakness in her muscles, and in her legs, and in the core bit of her that had got them all this stupid way.
And so she gripped harder, hugged it and closed her eyes. With her face pressed to the top she felt some release. In amongst the familiar smells of the lino and wood, she sunk her chin into its top and drew in the smell of wool, the slightly damp wool that was firm and yet yielding, and that had come all the way from Scotland. Trembling now, she trusted her weight to it. Felt it tall and strong at her side. It might let her lean on it now, if she would just let it go, let herself be the one supported and taken. So she did. She closed her eyes and rested her nose in amongst the wool. She released herself to it in a spasm of incomprehension. She leaned her trembling body into it; let her aching elbow fold softly to her side. There she hung as if a great arm had folded around her waist, an arm warm in a jacket sleeve rough with little leather buttons, and was taking her away.