The swings were built for children and you are no longer a child: to sit down, you need to wedge your hips between the narrow chains. Though it is not raining, there is a creeping dampness to the air and it is bitterly cold. The seat of the swing is wetter than you realised, but there’s no point getting up now. You push off with your feet and let yourself glide. The park is at the top of a long, grassy incline, and you can see all the way down to the street at the bottom, to the row of houses with their tiled rooves and bare gardens. They have a bleak, grey elegance, built on a grander scale than you are used to, wide bay windows overlooking expansive lawns.
You check your watch: quarter past four. Mrs Parker didn’t tell you when you could come back, just that a photographer was coming to take her picture for a magazine, and it would be best if you weren’t in the house. Of course it would be best; for though in the Parkers’ house you try to make yourself invisible, you are never invisible enough. Yesterday Mrs Parker pointed a manicured nail at the residue of toothpaste tainting the basin, and stood frowning while you rinsed it away. She has a habit of wincing when you walk into a room, her musician’s ears calibrated so finely your very footsteps are offensive.
You have never seen this playground before, but it is familiar in the way of all playgrounds: the see-saw cushioned by tyres sunk into the ground, the iron horse with six saddles along its elongated back, the monkey bars straddling their rectangle of asphalt. You used to hook one knee over a bar like that and spin like a Catherine wheel, fierce and unrepentant when boys chanted they could see your undies; with their scabby knees and skinny arms, none of them were as fast or as fearless as you. But when your teacher announced there was a girl in the class who had no shame, it was you she turned to. ‘Stand up,’ she said, her face ablaze with acne and something else you didn’t understand. ‘Lift up your skirt.’ You stood fingering your hem, struck mute, unsure if it was more wrong to obey her or refuse. The class were bright-eyed with horror and delight, all having grasped the same thrilling truth: whatever was going to happen to you, you had brought it upon yourself.
It is dark when you get back. You need to ring the doorbell, because although you have slept in this house every night for five months, you do not have a key to its door. Mr Parker answers and gives his usual embarrassed nod, his eyes averted. Then he turns and walks back down the hall to his study – a leathery-smelling, sunless room filled with books and index cards in little wooden drawers – leaving you to close the door yourself. You hear Mrs Parker’s cello from the drawing room, its full, mournful swelling and, from upstairs, Matthew’s halting viola.
The family has eaten. There is a plate of food for you under a glass dome on the kitchen bench: never let it be said that the Parkers have treated you badly. Steam has condensed into droplets on the glass. There is a chop, whitish with congealed fat, peas, carrots and some hardened mashed potato. Mrs Parker does not like to see good food wasted. You chew the chop and swallow it down, manage the peas and carrots but baulk at the potato, which you scrape into the rubbish bin and disguise with orange peel and screwed up paper. You fill the sink, wash the dishes, dry them, hang the draining rack on its hook and wipe the bench top. Then kneel on the floor and spray in oven cleaner, its caustic fumes making your eyes water. There is a dull ache in the base of your spine; it has been sore on and off all day. You scrub the oven, rinse the rubber gloves, blow them inside out the way Mrs Parker has shown you and lay them on the shelf under the sink.
‘You do what you’re told at the Parkers.’
That was what your mother said when she saw you off at the bus station in Balclutha.
‘And mind your manners. The minister said they’re a very respectable family.’
‘Yes, Mum,’ you said.
‘Mr Parker is something at the university.’
‘I know. You told me.’
‘Don’t pick your lip.’
The bus driver had left the engine on while he checked the tickets, and the air was thick with diesel fumes.
‘Where to?’ he said, picking up your suitcase and hoisting it into the bus’s underbelly.
‘Dunedin,’ your mother answered, resting her hands on the back of your shoulders as if to block your exit route.
‘Off to the big city, eh?’ said the driver.
‘Someone’s going to have some fun.’
He clipped your ticket and handed it back to you. Your mother gave you an awkward, darting kiss on the side of your cheek, and you found yourself climbing the steps onto the bus, edging down its narrow aisle to your seat. In front of you, a moist-faced man was puffing on a cigarette, and as you sat down you were enveloped in a stratus of smoke. The driver boarded the bus and counted the passengers. Through the window, you watched your mother fussing with her handbag. When she saw you she gave a tight little smile and fluttered one hand at you, clutching her bag to her chest with the other. As the driver pulled out of the station you lifted your hand and waved back; but it was too late; she had already turned away.
When you have finished cleaning the kitchen you switch off the light and walk down the Parkers’ broad, high-ceilinged hallway to the sunroom. This is where you sleep. It isn’t a proper room at all, but a glassed-in veranda, long and narrow, with weatherboard as its internal wall and windows spanning the lengths of the other three. It faces north and heats up like a greenhouse on sunny days, but is uninsulated against the cold. Your bed is a window seat, with three foam rubber squabs as a mattress. The bedding is stored in a blanket box during the day so Mrs Parker can drink her tea in the sun and read her orchestral magazines. Each evening you stack the magazines carefully on the floor and make up the bed, folding hospital corners around the squabs in an attempt to stop them from separating while you sleep.
Upstairs the viola has gone quiet but the cello ploughs on. Mrs Parker has struck a difficult passage and keeps breaking off and repeating it. You open your suitcase. At the top, rubber banded together, is a stack of letters from your mother, all resolutely cheerful and full of stories about your brothers. You take out your nightie, which you sewed last year at school, each double thread tied neatly at the end of each French seam. It was in sewing class that Minnie Ferguson placed a dainty hand on your forearm and brought her rosebud mouth to your ear, so close the hair on your neck stood on end, and whispered, ‘Slut.’ When you put the nightie on, it pinches under the armholes and bunches across your upper back. Though it isn’t late, it is so cold in the sunroom there is little to do but get into bed; you lie with the dead weight of the blankets against your chest and feel the chill air wash your lungs. Mrs Parker has moved onto scales, emphatic and unrelenting; on the lowest note the window above your head vibrates in its frame.
You close your eyes and there is Minnie’s face. ‘Everyone knows you’re doing it with Peter Shanks,’ she says sweetly. You are falling, like Alice down the rabbit hole. Clammy hands grip your shoulders. The bus driver winks. You are a child again, standing in front of your giggling class with your skirt lifted to your waist. Your feet are rooted to the floor. The cello stops. The children go quiet. The teacher opens her drawer and takes out a pin; it falls through the air in slow motion and hits the floor with a sound like a distant bell. You turn on your heels and walk out of the classroom, out of the school, its rickety wooden building strangely intact – you thought it was demolished years ago, and replaced with low roofed prefabs. You are walking down a long, straight road, gravel crunching under your feet. Your youngest brother runs to catch up with you. He puts his hand in yours.
‘Are you coming home soon?’ he asks. You remember then – how could you have forgotten? – that you are babysitting for your neighbour, and you have left her children at home alone, only for a while, you thought, but that was hours ago. You climb through a fence and run across the paddock, gasping for breath, mud splattering your shins. When you get to the house the children are nowhere to be seen. There is an awful cramping in your stomach. You walk through the empty house, the windows open and the curtains flapping in the wind. You kneel by your bed, and reach your hands into the darkness underneath. You pull out a shoe box. It is heavy in your hands. You do not want to open it. You do not want to know what is inside. A cold, clenching pain radiates from your lower back. Something is wrong. You need to wake up.
The pain is like nothing you’ve ever felt before. You insides are being crushed, or torn apart. You bury your face in your pillow. Please, you whisper. Please please please. And then it stops. You are okay. It was nothing, after all. You lie wide awake, your heart racing. The house is silent except for the gentle creaks and sighs of its joists as the temperature drops. The curtains, backlit by the streetlight, glow a greyish yellow. You were dreaming something. You can’t remember what.
When it starts again your first instinct is to curl up in a ball and your second instinct is to run down the hallway to the toilet. By the time you get there it has stopped again. You lean your back against the wall and slide to the floor, where you crouch amongst the quivering, silver-winged moths that have flown through the window and stunned themselves on the bulb.
When you return to the sunroom your feet are numb and you can’t stop shivering. You wrap the blankets around your shoulders and kneel at the window. You open the curtains to the starless night and try to make out the shapes outside: Mrs Parker’s rose bushes, pitilessly pruned and tethered to stakes, the holly hedge which encircles the property, the gate with its heavy stone posts. A small, slow animal – a hedgehog perhaps – makes its way across the lawn. You take a deep breath and rest your forehead on the glass. Then, from a distance, you feel it coming again. Above you, in their upstairs bedrooms with their corniced ceilings and their mirrored dressers, Mr and Mrs Parker and Matthew are sleeping. You lie down and cannot bear to lie and stand and cannot bear to stand and drop to your knees on the sunroom floor. Tears and saliva matt your hair. You wrap your arms around your belly. You do not make a sound.
By dawn the sky has cleared, and a watery sunlight floods the room. From above, you hear footsteps, pipes groaning. Mr Parker cleaning his teeth, coming down the stairs. You hear the click of the front door through the partition by your head as he leaves for work. The thud as the newspaper lands on the path. Mrs Parker calling Matthew to breakfast. You need to get up. You need to get dressed. You need to fold your blankets, with the corners exactly aligned so they fit tidily into their box.
‘There you are,’ says Mrs Parker, settling her teacup in its porcelain saucer, when you open the dining room door. ‘I had to set the table myself.’ You look from her to the table, to the toast cooling in its metal rack, the milk in its jug, the sugar in its little blue bowl. You steady yourself on the door frame and close your eyes. When you open them Mrs Parker is watching you closely.
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘I see.’
‘What?’ says Matthew, looking up from his cornflakes. A moustache of milk coats his upper lip. For a moment he reminds you of your youngest brother.
‘Nothing,’ says Mrs Parker, then turns back to you. ‘I’d like you to wait for me in the drawing room please.’
You have only ever entered this room to clean: to dust the ornaments tastefully arrayed on the heart matai mantelpiece, to plump up the cushions on the sofa, to vacuum the carpet, taking care to angle the nozzle into the edges of the skirting boards, lest Mrs Parker find them sullied with dust. On no account are you to touch the cello which stands in the corner like a sombre, dwarfish chaperone. You sit on the sofa, then stand, then sit down again.
‘So,’ says Mrs Parker, appearing in the doorway. ‘I suppose we’d better get you to the hospital. Mr Parker’s taken the car. You’ll have to catch a taxi.’
She goes back into the hallway. There is a ‘ding’ as she picks up the receiver. You wait. A long way away you hear a car sound its horn. Mrs Parker comes into the drawing room. ‘It’s here,’ she says. She has your suitcase in her hand. You realise you are panting, a noise whose inappropriateness in Mrs Parker’s drawing room strikes you at that moment as the worst of all the sins you have committed. She stiffens. You follow her to the front door and she waves to the car that is idling on the curb. ‘Do you have money for the fare?’ she says.
You’ve got the money you father gave you, still untouched in an envelope in your suitcase. But how much do taxis cost? You have no idea. You should know and you don’t, because you are ignorant and from the country and Mrs Parker catches taxis all the time and knows you do not know. She tells you to wait and comes back with her purse. It’s the way she takes out the note – pincered between her thumb and forefinger.
‘No,’ you say. ‘I – ’
‘Just take it,’ she says coolly.
She stands aside, and you pick up the suitcase and walk down the steps. At the bottom you stop. You want to go back. If you lie down for a while it might go away. This is the sort of stupid thing you think. You want to plead with Mrs Parker to be allowed to stay, to grab at her ankles, to beg and cry, to bury your face in her silk kimono. Even though Mrs Parker cannot help you, you would do all of these things. Except Mrs Parker has shut the door.
It’s your fault. ‘You’re not trying,’ someone says. ‘You have to push.’ You’re doing even this wrong. You want to pull your knees towards your chest, but your legs won’t move. You try to say, ‘My legs won’t move,’ but your words are thickly slurred. Perhaps you are paralysed. You would not mind being paralysed if the pain would stop. People come and go. The features below their eyes have fused: they have tented noses, sealed-over mouths. One of them says, ‘It’s posterior.’ A light is shining in your eyes. Your body heaves. Some outside force has taken over, bypassing your conscious self, who gave up hours ago. You did not know it was possible to be this tired. ‘Perhaps you should have thought about this nine months ago,’ a voice says. Another heave. And another. And another. There is a sound like scissors cutting fabric. A burning pain. A slithering wetness. And something is gathered up and taken away and you should pay attention – pay attention! – because later, in five years or in 15 or in 50, you’re going to come back to this moment and need to know what happened. But you are not paying attention. You will not remember. You will realise this was also your fault. You close your eyes.
You are in a bed in a room, and the room is a hospital room and the bed is a hospital bed, high from the ground, like a plinth or a platform, as if you have been airlifted here, evacuated from some emergency. The sheets are cardboardy and the nurses walk past you, nylons softly chafing, as if you are not there. There are three other beds in the room and in the beds are three women who wear frilled nighties and pink Viyella dressing gowns. They have flowers in vases by their beds and husbands with shoes that squeak on the lino and aunts with fruit in paper bags. There are no flowers by your bed. The women all have the same glassy-eyed smiles and speak in the same polite, awed voices, telling each other how lucky they are, and how their husbands will be making a muddle of things at home. Every four hours a nurse brings each woman a baby, labelled at the wrist, for it is important that the women have the right babies, even though the babies are all the same and the women are all the same. They coo over the babies and feed the babies and say woopsie and isn’t he a darling and ooh she’s a hungry one.
Through the window you can see the concrete of the adjacent building, stained by water dripping from a row of fan units. There is an achy clenching in your stomach, and you cannot tell if it is real or not, like an after-image when you have looked at the sun. Which everyone says will make you go blind; but you did not go blind as you lay on the grass with Peter Shanks, squinting at the sky. Don’t worry, he said, unbuttoning your blouse. We’ll be fine. You close your eyes and there they are, the worm trails of light across your retina. The damp grass beneath your back. The sound of the river coursing downstream, the whirring of hospital generators, which never stop. You could be awake or dreaming. It does not matter.
In the night you hear muffled crying from one of the other beds. It goes on for a long time. In the morning you try to figure out which of the women it was, but they are all wearing their identical smiles. They get out of bed at the same time and put on their slippers and shuffle gamely down the corridor for their mothercraft lesson. A nurse comes to change their sheets and you ask if you can please have some water.
‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’ she says, sheathing a pillow in its case. She puts it on the bed and turns to look at you.
‘What on earth have you done to your lip?’ she says.
Your hands fly up to cover your mouth.
‘Nothing,’ you say.
The nurse leaves and you are alone. You inhale and exhale the warm, stale air, and watch the fans spin. You touch your tummy and it is loose-skinned and empty. You touch between your legs and your hand does not recognise the feel of anything down there. Everything hurts. Minnie Fergusson comes and tells you that you must get out of bed.
‘I can’t,’ you say.
‘Don’t be silly,’ she replies.
She hoists you under both armpits and swings your feet to the floor. She is petite, Minnie Fergusson, but has an unearthly strength.
‘There,’ she says briskly. ‘See?’
You are in a corridor, long and harshly lit. The ceiling is the same colour as the walls which are the same colour as the floor. You pass someone pushing a woman in a wheelchair. Perhaps you are sleepwalking. Minnie is gripping your wrist and her fingers are steel around bone.
‘In here,’ she says.
You are sitting on a toilet. Clots of blood the size of dead mice slide from between your legs into the bowl.
‘Hurry up,’ says Minnie.
You are washing your hands at a basin.
You hold one hand, palm up, under the tap. Water flows between your fingers. It has a pinky hue.
‘That’s funny,’ you say.
Black dots appear on your palm. Or perhaps they are squares. The pattern is like a checkerboard. The next thing you know, you are spread-eagled on the floor. Three nurses surround you. They look so worried you want to laugh.
‘She fainted,’ says one.
‘Let’s sit her up,’ says another.
But they cannot co-ordinate themselves, and each time they lift you, you flop back to the floor. You feel strangely peaceful. You wonder how the nurses’ hats stay on, perched as they are on the crowns of their heads.
‘Has Minnie gone?’ you say. You hope she has.
When your parents come to collect you, you realise that everything about them is wrong. Your father is wearing a cabled jersey knitted by your mother, sausage-armed and rolled at the cuffs. Your mother is wearing orangey lipstick and apologises to everyone she meets. Nurses, doctors, orderlies: she makes no distinction. There are forms to sign. The nurse is going to get a pen but your father thinks he has one and then he can’t find it, and there is a kerfuffle and your mother scowls at your father while simultaneously attempting to smile at the nurse. The nurse brings a pen. At that moment your father lifts his fist in triumph. It was not in his jacket at all! It was in his trouser pocket! You sign the forms. Actually, you print your name on the forms. You do not have a signature. You have never had to sign anything before.
Your mother wants to buy you an orange. You follow your parents into a shop in the hospital foyer. The shop does not sell oranges. But you must have an orange! You do not want an orange. Your mother gives you a hurt look. She buys you some potato chips and a packet of PK chewing gum. She thinks she has the right change and the shop girl waits while your mother counts out all of her one and two cent pieces. She is three cents short; she gives a bright shrug and says something like ‘it’s always the way’ or ‘wouldn’t you just know it’. There is a magazine rack next to the counter. One of the magazines has a cover image of an elegant woman on a window seat with one arm draped around a cello: ‘Southern virtuoso’, says the caption. Your mother hands you the chips and the gum.
‘Thanks,’ you say.
When you step out of the hospital, the bright coldness of the air scorches your skin. Every parking meter, every bush is sharply shadowed; the city is brittle and cut-out, like the scenes you gazed at through the Viewmaster you had as a child. The car is blocks away. You concentrate on walking normally, one foot in front of the other. You get in the car. Your father wants to take a photograph of the railway station. ‘You’ll never find a park,’ says your mother.
But there are parks right outside. You all get out of the car. Your father asks you to stand in front of its vast, arching entrance, and makes a big point of adjusting the focus before taking his shot. Later you will see that you are no more than a smudge against the blurred building. It is impossible to make out the expression on your face.
You get back in the car and your father drives through the southern suburbs, where smaller houses squat on shady sections. You follow the road up a hill with a fire station at the top, the car jerking as your father changes gear, and down a long, smooth gradient onto the motorway.
‘What did they give you to eat in the hospital?’ your father says.
‘You got jelly and ice-cream when you had your tonsils out,’ says your mother.
‘Not really,’ you say.
‘She was only four, love,’ says your father.
You run the tip of your tongue along the inside of your lip. It is swollen and raw.
‘The boys have persuaded Fergus Mackey to take them duck shooting,’ says your mother.
‘They’d better watch themselves if they’re going out with Mackey,’ says your father. ‘He won’t stand for any of their cheek.’
‘Ann Mackey’s going to spin me some wool from her brown sheep.’
You sit very still. The towel between your thighs is sodden. If you move, it might leak: soak your skirt, the carseat, the car, the road.
‘You said thank you to Mr and Mrs Parker, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, Mum,’ you say.
Your father is stuck behind a sheep truck. The sheep’s woolly flanks are crushed up against the slats. Your father hits a straight stretch and he floors the accelerator. The truck edges across the white line into the hard shoulder and your father gives a light toot as he overtakes.
‘The boys are looking forward to seeing you,’ says your mother.
There is a long silence.
‘You have to put it behind you now,’ she says quietly.
You know that.
‘I know that,’ you say.
And you will. You will let your parents drive you home, down the snaking road through the wet, green hills, across the bridge with its six grey arches, and you will not speak about it, and you will not look back.
It will be just as if it never happened at all.
Wellington writer Emma Martin is winner of the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Six Grey Arches is from her debut story collection, Two Girls in a Boat (VUP), which will be released in May.