To Whom It May Concern,
It gives me no pleasure to complain once more about your Choc-Egg ‘Surprises’. Since writing last, I have purchased another 43 Choc-Eggs, mostly from our local country store.
I have been a fan of your product since boyhood. I aim to collect all the parts required to assemble Robo-Bird, as advertised on TV.
Please find attached a spreadsheet of ‘Surprises’ found personally by myself since the campaign began last December.
I would like someone to explain why I have received such a disproportionate number of feet.
I have no use for 36 left feet. What I really need is a head. I have discussed this matter with fellow Choc-Egg enthusiasts in my exclusive online chatroom and, frankly, we are all wondering if your company has released a single head to the public. Not one of us has found a head.
Professor Cornelius Stoppelbeim
To Whom It Absolutely Does Concern,
Thank you for the free samples. My barber’s grandson appreciated the bubblegum and jubes.
Thank you also for your condolences.
Update: Since our last correspondence I have been fortunate to find one right thigh and both wings of the elusive Robo-Bird within locally sourced Choc-Eggs. I continue to buy Choc-Egg Surprises at the same generous rate. But still no head.
Please check your distribution.
Also, I have zero interest in your newer lines. If you feel the urge to send another box of free goodies, please make them Choc-Egg Surprises ONLY. I do not eat the chocolate. I do not chew gum. As a collector, my interest is purely professional. I only wish to assemble the Robo-Bird, whose parts are ostensibly found within your Choc-Egg Surprise line.
Professor Cornelius Stoppelbeim
Dearest Ms Minty McNudd,
I extend heartfelt thanks for the box of heads. I have only just opened the package. My eyes filled with tears at the sight. As a natural pessimist, I expected another useless gift of chocolate raisins and Turkish non-Delight, but you’ve really come through. My faith in your corporation has been fully restored.
I formally retract every word uttered over the phone. I will never be so rude again.
I shall keep this short, as I am very much looking forward to assembling several fully-functional Robo-Birds.
I bid you farewell,
Very truly yours,
Professor Cornelius Stoppelbeim
To Ms Minty McNudd,
I am disappointed to put pen to paper once more.
When you urged ‘great care’ in your last note, included with the gift of 50 Robo-Bird heads, I assumed you referred sarcastically to my abusive tone on the phone. Now I see what you really meant.
After that generous gift of rare heads, I found myself in excellent trading position. I was able to accumulate enough parts to construct all 13 Robo-Birds in the set.
Once assembled, they seemed bigger than on TV. I took a tape measure and applied it to my TV screen, adjusting for screen-ness. I then applied the tape measure to the Robo-Birds in my living room. Once constructed, the figurines were definitely larger than advertised. (Refer to spreadsheet, attached.)
I had also assumed that the squawk emitted from the birds on TV was part of your advertising jingle, and would not actually spew forth from the assembled products themselves.
I now see I was wrong to assume, but your corporation must shoulder its own share of the blame. This is false advertising.
I may leave one star reviews online if you cannot help with the following.
Tell me how to stop them from squawking. I have tried removing the heads but, once assembled, the parts are stuck like superglue. Several neighbours have tried pliers, after breaking into my abode in the small hours. The break-ins are under investigation with local police, and don’t ask for further details. I am too distressed.
Needless to say, this is now a community matter.
A very disgruntled FORMER fan of Choc-Eggs,
Professor Cornelius Stoppelbeim
Ms Minty McNudd,
The Robo-Birds have laid their own eggs. At first I was delighted. Extra merchandise stands me in good stead, in this high pressure world of rare collectibles.
However, the hatchlings have proven untameable.
Each new generation of Robo-Birds is bigger and more evil than the last.
First they ate every skerrick of muesli.
They made nests in my drawers and p**ed all over the floor. They peck constantly against reflective surfaces. They create great gusts of wind by flapping from room to room. This does cut down on cooling costs, but winter is nigh.
(For a complete list of birdy indiscretions, refer to Appendix A.)
The birds and I are now well-acquainted with our local police, who have thrown their own hands in the air over this matter. Several officers have developed a phobia of winged creatures. House prices have dropped. Children are afraid to attend school. Our village is famous for custard squares and attracts visitors from the highway, but no one has stopped here in weeks, terrified of the dark skies. This has a trickle-down effect on our local economy.
I have searched online for instructions on The Taming and Training of Choc-Egg Robo-Birds. Alas, no hits. Please send that document through via email, as a print friendly PDF.
Professor Cornelius Stoppelbeim
Ms McNudd, Ms McNudd, I beseech you!
I holler to you from a dank cupboard! Forgive the hoarse voice, but no one is near to attend my cries!
I humbly request you withdraw all Robo-Birds from the market forthwith!
Your Robo-Birds stole my glasses. Next they took my purse and my phone. The latest hatchlings have learned to ‘parrot’, and if you hear from me on the phone, THAT IS NOT ME!
I swear, I would never use such language. (Not since apologising for it that other time.)
Please come rescue me from this darkened recess. The birds won’t so much as bring me a glass of water.
Otherwise, I’m afraid to exclaim, you may be hearing from my lawyers!
Professor Cornelius Stoppelbeim!
How To Leave A Stranger Haunted Highways
The man narrowly avoided the girl, rounding another nameless curve in the unlit country road. He hadn’t time to consider much before pulling up. The wheels stopped twenty metres ahead of where she stood, slouching and morose in the mist. He hadn’t planned on picking up a hitchhiker. But then, how could he leave her?
She waited there in the wet paddock grass, considering his intentions, perhaps.
The man squinted into his rear view mirror and wondered if he should reverse. No. That would seem solicitous. He cranked down the window instead, meaning to offer a casual invitation.
He didn’t need to call out. The pale face appeared, framed by the window. Long, dark hair hung lank around her pixie face. She looked like she’d been crying. It was probably the drizzle, washing mascara down freckled cheeks.
“You headed for Wellington.” It wasn’t a question. This winding road had only one logical terminus. She stooped there, two metres out from his wagon, making no move to open the door.
He felt cold prickles on his forehead. The passenger seat was getting damp. “Hop in.”
She opened the rear door and threw an army-surplus rucksack across the seat. To his surprise, she joined her luggage in the back, looking like a little kid without a booster chair.
“This is no taxi service.” He meant to say it kindly. He hoped she heard his smile through the darkness. “You sit in the back, I might expect a fare.”
Did she not trust him? Might he thrust his palm between her thighs? Not likely. Not on a night like this, when both hands were required on the wheel, just to keep the gale from buffering a wagon right off the road. Still, he shouldn’t have said that.
The wagon idled. If she didn’t trust him in the front, he didn’t trust her in the back. She sat shrouded in shadow. The girl could be carrying a flick knife for all he knew. A blade to the throat would be easy to choreograph from the back seat – harder from a lateral position. Hitchhikers were supposed to offer basic companionship as fare. Or had times changed?
The girl obliged him and manoeuvred her agile body through the narrow gap between the front seats. Without meeting his eye, she strapped herself in. The seatbelt jerked, steadfast against her attempts to set up a barrier between herself and the man.
He leaned hard on the steering wheel. The wagon bumped back onto the tarmac. He indicated out of habit, not because there was another vehicle within cooee. Not on the back road.
“This the classical station?” The girl’s index finger made a tentative move towards the stereo. “Guess they reckon no one’s up listening after midnight.”
“It’s a CD.” His favourite.
The man glanced at the girl’s slim wrist and at her chipped nail varnish. Had the parents taught no manners at all? What’s all this, questioning his music when the ride itself was a random act of kindness?
The girl bit her bottom lip with rabbitesque teeth. “Can’t stand that violin screeching on.”
She turned the knob. A staticky buzz ebbed and flowed between high-pitched alien whirrs until the dial settled upon the strongest signal – a station with its daytime announcers on LSD and its night-time crew on pot. The girl drummed her leg to the rhythm of some frenetic, drug-induced guitar distortion.
“There’s no way of saying this without sounding creepy,” said the man, “but a girl should not be hitching alone. Especially at night.”
“You read the papers?” She wiped strands of hair from her forehead. Oncoming headlights of a rare road-sharer drew the man’s attention to a raindrop glistening on the tip of her nose. Just for a second.
He nodded. It’s not what you read about. It’s what you don’t.
“Shouldn’t take no notice of papers. S’all bullshit. Bad stuff happens all over the place and when you least expect it. Anyway, I strike more luck hitching alone than with a bloke.”
He didn’t doubt that. She was dressed for the journey. Short skirt. Damp, clingy t-shirt. He noticed she shivered and thought to offer his jacket – the one he’d removed earlier and placed, neatly folded, upon the back seat. But that would seem fatherly, over-familiar, chivalrous. This girl was not his daughter, nor a potential conquest.
Instead, he cranked up the heating. The cool interior was suited to these long, overnight journeys: less chance of falling asleep at the wheel. But he would make an exception for his passenger. He’d hardly doze off with ska-punk blaring at this volume.
Hot breeze wafted towards the girl. She closed her eyes. Had she noticed his attempt at a welcome?
The narrow road dipped into gullies and rose into hillcrests. By day, the view would reveal green fields and flocks of grey sheep huddled beneath the mountains. By night, the farmland was uniform in its dark cloak of mist. Windscreen wipers clicked and slithered across the glass. Pleased at his own driving prowess, the man’s left hand manipulated the gear stick. He conducted the purring engine through the valley.
He wondered where the girl was headed. He wondered where she’d been. Did she have any idea of her worth? Someone, somewhere, had laboured to give her life. Someone had cared for the girl, at least enough to offer basic sustenance and shelter. And she repaid her parents like this – risking physical safety by waiting on the verge of a deserted highway – likely to die of hypothermia, if not sideswiped by a rig. Or abducted by evil.
The girl’s eyes were closed but small hands formed fists in her lap. Why would she trust him? Why would anyone? He wouldn’t trust himself if he happened upon his own double on a back road. Who’d get inside a car with a wide-shouldered man in need of a shave? Especially when his goatee made a sub par job of concealing the long scar engraved down one side of his face.
The girl regarded the man through heavy lids. “Do you got a job?”
“Of course I have a job.”
“Well, my uncles don’t got no job.” He’d presumed too much by his tone. “What you work as?”
“I’m a musician, of sorts.”
The girl looked at the stereo, then at the man. “No kidding! What you play? You in a band?”
“I play the violin. In a quartet.”
A grin spread slowly across her face. She raised her eyebrows then rested her mouth in her palm.
“Not what women want to hear,” he said, then regretted his words. Better to justify that. “Most people would agree that the guitar is a far more attractive instrument. Right up there with drums and sax.”
The girl puffed out her cheeks and drew up her knees. She looked like his daughter: a thinly disguised, older version. But then, the man saw ghost-daughters everywhere.
“You heading home from a gig, then?”
“On my way.”
The girl nodded. “Your job explains the beat up old wagon in need a some panel beating.”
The voice of youth. But then, aren’t they all attuned to the physical manifestations of affluence these days? A breadline violinist must settle for engine reliability over image. He must also catch the cheap ferry. The two twenty-five Interislander, to be precise. He glanced at the dashboard clock. Plenty of time. He’d anticipated the gorge would be closed to traffic on a night like this.
“And where are you off to at this hour?”
“Me?” She said this as if there might be an unannounced fellow passenger stowed in the boot. “Nowhere in particular. Just gonna wing it for now. No point making plans when plans just change.”
How she sounded like his wife, pointing that out. Even the way she rolled her eyes. The man had always been the planning type. Holidays, meals, bill-payments; he always had a mental timeline, always knew where he was headed, what he would do once he got there.
The girl dropped her slim legs to the floor. “Anyhow, my life aren’t none a no one else’s beeswax.”
The man jabbed the knob on the stereo. The music ended. They listened to the road noise for a while, and the click-click-click of the windscreen wipers. He needed new rubber strips. Another thirty bucks. Then the girl turned the radio back on. She grinned. He let the ska-punk play.
“Din think so.”
What on earth gave him the bachelor whiff? Was it the empty petrol-station pie packets crackling beneath her Chucks? Might the interior of his wagon, like his Spartan cottage, lack a woman’s touch?
He’d intended on staying married, but promises were fruitless; marriage required two souls of similar inclination. Last time he saw his wife she’d made her mark – branded him with the claw of her eternity ring. He didn’t mind. The surface tingle on his cheek was nothing to the torture of loss sitting heavy in his chest. He’d welcomed the transfer of pain.
The wife had wanted a different reaction. She wanted him to fight back, to argue his case, to tell her it wasn’t his fault. But he slouched over the sink, weeping, with one bleeding cheek cupped in one large hand. The wife couldn’t bear the grief mirrored in the man’s eyes. So she left.
So much for life plans.
Against instinct, the man tried not to look ahead. If he could make it through today, tomorrow would reveal itself, eventually. Nights were the longest. Ghostly girls disrupted his REM, each ghost older than the one before: each with eyes more knowing, but with a body just as small. Better to keep driving… Keep moving. Keep distracted. He glanced at the slight figure beside him, anticipating her next move, second-guessing her needs. Her arms were sticks. She’d have no chance against a large man.
“Where would you like me to drop you off?”
“You passing anywhere near Cuba Street?”
“I can’t dump you in the city.”
Why, indeed. Why had he picked her up in the first place? He’d hurtled round the bend thinking one stray head of cattle might launch itself into his path. He’d pumped the brakes before realising the beast was human. In an instant he’d become this girl’s guardian, in loco parentis, morally obliged to follow through in his duty of care. He had no choice.
“I aren’t as young as I look.” The girl thrust out her bottom lip. “It’s a pain in the arse, looking young when you aren’t even.”
“You look about eighteen to me.”
“Hm.” Her shoulders hunched. She chewed on one thumbnail. “Most people think I’m fourteen. Cos I’m small, you know?”
After years of working behind a bar, the man could tell a minor by the eyes. This girl might pass for thirty, going solely on the look behind hers. Besides, he had a special interest in eighteen-year-old girls. He saw them everywhere, laughing and flirting and sipping on Bacardi Breezers: each a spectre of the man’s imagined daughter.
The road was straighter now, undulating and wider and lit by lamps.
The girl began to fidget. She bent down to massage her feet, then yawned with exaggerated arms. “Want some chewy?”
The man shook his head.
The girl unbuckled her belt and twisted around in the seat. Her bony left hip pressed against the man’s left biceps as she wrestled with her luggage in the back. He edged away.
The girl struggled with the zipper of her rucksack then fished around inside. “Gotcha.” She replaced her small rump in the front seat, holding up crumpled gum-wrapper like a prize. She worked at the packet with both thumbs until she’d produced the last piece of Juicy Fruit.
“Lucky you didn’t want any, eh. S’only one bit left.” She relished the last pillow of gum as if it were a three-course meal, smacking her lips in appreciation.
The man thought to pull in at the next BP. The girl could do with a feed. But he’d be risking another life, offering the girl a pathogenic petrol-station pie at this hour.
“Don’t you know anyone in the capital? Anyone at all?”
The girl made a fist and examined her fingernails. “I got a friend or two.”
“Can I drop you off at a house? You want to use my phone?”
“Nah. S’all right. I can just turn up.”
“Tell me where to go.”
“Yeah man. I’ll tell you where to go!” The girl chuckled at her joke-for-one.
She directed him off the highway and into suburbia: tree-lined streets, carefully tended gardens. Left, then right. Right again.
“Turn off here.” The girl gave the man no warning.
A taxi at their rear blasted its horn.
“You sure you know the way?”
She nodded, expressionless. “Here. Stop here.”
He pulled to the side of the road. They had reached the pinnacle of a hill: harbour views by day, distant city lights twinkling by night.
“This the place?” The man peered towards the replica Greek villa, the one with a rectangle of yellow light shining from a second storey window.
The girl shrugged and attempted a smile.
“Your friends really live here?”
The girl retrieved her rucksack from the back seat. The tatty bag was too compact to contain much of use. She didn’t seem to own a coat. But the girl had street smarts. She wouldn’t hitch a lift from a random man, a dodgy fellow with a scarred cheek driving a beat up old wagon, only to assume he’d be on his merry way afterwards. She didn’t belong here, but she needed him to think so.
Standing on the cobbled footpath beneath an antique street-lamp, the girl raised one hand in solemn farewell.
The man watched from his car as she lingered for a moment on the footpath. Knowing he wouldn’t leave, she threw her rucksack over one shoulder and tip-toed across the wet lawn. She turned towards him again at the front door, lurking in the shadows without pushing the doorbell.
The girl slouched just as his daughter had, the last time he saw her. He’d dropped her off on the highway. The daughter had giggled and ducked from view behind the shelter. That had been a father-daughter ritual: bus-stop hide-and-seek. That’s where he lost her.
Gone. Just like that. Nine months’ gestation. Nine months’ post-natal depression. Nine years of growing and caring and laughing and crying. It’s still in the papers, now and then. But it’s not what they say in the papers. It’s what they don’t.
Nine years later, the man will never know an adult daughter. When he allows himself to remember, he dreams of a giggling child. He tries to imagine a grown woman, but sees ethereal eyes in the face of a stranger.
The man squints towards the hilltop porch. Perhaps the girl has wedged herself behind one of the Doric columns, hoping to play hide-and-seek forever.
The man extends an arm towards the back seat and reaches for his jacket. He can’t abandon a young woman on a cold, wet night. But the rectangular protrusion he expects to find in the pocket has disappeared: fifty-five in cash, library cards, loyalty vouchers, old receipts, the lot.
He sees the girl’s shadow flicker inside the porch. He could amble up the driveway and retrieve his wallet without fuss. He would have given her The Stars: food, shelter, the shirt off his back. She doesn’t need to ask and, sensing this, she hasn’t.
The man swings a U-ey and cruises down the hill in first. He hasn’t enough cash for a refill of petrol. He hasn’t planned on that.
For a very short time afterwards, the ghost-dreams leave him in peace. And he feels that he may have paid penance.
I think ghost stories are at their best when the ghost stands in for some horrible happenings in the viewpoint character’s past. In this case, the girl is flesh and blood but in storytelling terms she’s functioning as the man’s ghost.
Diary of a Goth Girl Death Personified
Allegra Joy hates her name and hates people to think she might be happy. Anyway, she’s not happy. She wants a boyfriend. But he has to be peak Goth.
THURSDAY XIII FEBRUARY
One positive thing about a visit to the school counsellor is the opportunity to miss class. Ms P suspects my motivatoins. She insists I’m more normal* than I profess and that I’m missing too much calculus. I offered to show her my backlog of journals as evidence of inner turmoil. She declines the opportunity. Apparently, teenage girls who scribble depression diaries only make themselves sadder, and the best way to get myself really down is by “re-reading my own sorry dross”.
Sadness is under-rated. Nevertheless, she offered to rip out the most maudlin** first one and a half months of this year.
* I asked her to define ‘normal’. She skirted around the issue and finally acknowledged my very good point.
** I had to look up ‘maudlin’ and it’s my new
favourite least disagreeable word. I want a cat called Maudlin.
Agreeable news: Slow-learning Economics Teacher has finally memorised our names. We are free to choose our own desks. I bagsed a corner and can now read novels and Gothic zines. I’ve just finished reading The Unauthorised Biography of Death and highly recommend a re-read to my future, wiser self.
Disagreeable news: Unscary Year 11 Dean pulled me aside after assembly to offer comment upon personal grooming. My make-up job “does not fit happily* with the school image”.
* It’s not like I’m aiming to be RENOWNED for my HAPPINESS anyhow.
Is this a form of discrimination? Unscary Dean would not tell Reggis et al to look “a little less black”, yet the twit suggests I might pop out into the yard to “get some colour in my cheeks”. Unscary Dean also suggests I end my co-dependent relationship with the kohl pencil. First Mother, now the Dean! (I told him where to shove the kohl pencil.)
Assignments are not progresing smoothly. Was late for I.T. after admiring my bone structure in the dimly-lit D-block loos. In my absence, the immature little punk I sit next to thought it funny to smear glue-stick across my keyboard. It was nothing antiseptic wipe couldn’t rectify. What bothered me was the uber-annoying exe installed by Ronald McDonald in startup. The entire class was treated to sheep bleating as noisy cartoon creatures trotted across my desktop, mounted my icons and fell down dead. The sheep are meant to be ironic symbols of my refusal to conform.
But seriously guys. Not funny after the first 10 times. Hot I.T. Teacher made me share a workstation with Ronald McDonald as punishment for us both*. We waited 40 minutes for Ron’s PC to warm up, another 10 for it to shut down. Very little was learned re programming, though Ronald admitted to wearing size 13 clodhoppers. I don’t even want to know.
* Apparently I’m to blame for everyone else’s “off-talk behaviour”. I can’t help that I’m interesting.
Hot I.T. Teacher threatened to send me to the basement to work alone on a MASSIVE retro computer, manufactured circa 1980. He goes, “Oh and Allegra, in my class, size is not everything.” Despite widespread hilarity I did not crack a grin. As the sole female in advanced computer, I plough a lonely furrow.
I may change my name to Lucifer. Lucy for short. “Allegra Joy” is a totally inappropriate name for a Goth.
FRIDAY XIV FEBRUARY
I’ve deleted all the happy-clappy tunes from my Goth playlist. No more Metallica. No more Guns n’ Roses. From now on I listen only to Dismember and Bauhaus.
I’ve decided to make use of public transport. A serious Goth cannot be seen driving a red Toyota Corolla. Looks altogether too cheerful. A Goth is much better observed staring pale faced and shell-shocked from the interior of osme crowded bus. (Even if said bus is only the school bus.)
It would be seriously quicker to hitch a ride with Mother and Brother in the mornings. The school bus never comes on time. Then all three arrive at once. O, the sacrifices.
I surprised Hot I.T. Teacher by taking up his offer to work alone, in peace and solitude, on the retro computer in the basement.
- I don’t have to talk to Eccentric Classmates aking me for girl advice. Seriously, why ask the Goth? Do I look like a reservoir of love info? I’d ask my fellow nerds for Boy Advice, but only for the comic value. (No, I won’t. I’m busy being sad at the mo’.)
- I can pretend I’m trapped in the dungeon of some castle in legendary Gothic Scandza. This is not hard, as there is nothing in the way of soft furnishings, and no distractions to bring me back to this sorry reality called Year 12, at the height of an Australian summer in outback Goolooroo.
- No air-conditioning to speak of
- Hairy rodents
- Namely, regular pop-ins from Ronald McDonald who volunteers to relay teacherly instructions and provide photocopied handouts. He’s actually enquiring after Yours Truly. Ronald McDonald smiles far too much: instant turn-off. Just because he’s pale does not make him a fellow Goth.
New record: I have not spoken to a living soul* in four days. It’s not so hard. Thunderous facial expressions help.
* Not that I talked to any dead souls either, FYI.
Also: Is there any such thing as a dead soul? Or a living one? (I thought souls were above all that mortality stuff.)
Here’s hoping there’s a Basement Ghost. Sounds crazy bad. Bona fide Goths require at least one supernatural experience. I should notice something soon. Meanwhile, I could use a Goth-punk boyfriend to keep me on the hate and sorrow.
Watch our. This Goth Girl is officially on THE PROWL.
MONDAY XVII FEBRUARY
‘Twas a middling sort of weekend. I meditated in bed Saturday morn. Eccentric stepbrother is home from University*.
* It emerged later that being home is a permanent arrangement. He has a new rural-friendly career in wool classification.
1530: Mother just sent him in to wake me up. He offered tea and aspirin. I said nothing is wrong with me, that I was only mulling over the soundtrack to my own funeral. I can’t decide between “In Death’s Cold Embrace” or “Small Talk Stinks”.
I’m 96% sure that aforementioned Eccentric Stepbrother reads this diary. Yes, you. You know I know. Funny how you stopped wearing those high-waisted purple skinny jeans after my scathing review. While I’m at it, your bedroom smells like feet. Seriously man, invest in shoe powder.
Speaking of love, I noticed one mysterious man across the road while waiting at the bus-stop this morning: tall, dark, deathly slim, cloaked in a long, black anorak*.
* I admire the Gothiness of a boy who wears black anoraks at the Zenith of summer.
He wore a dash of eye-liner, methinks. I caught his dark eye for a moment before my bus arrived, strangely on time, thus ending our Moment. I hope to see fellow Goth again tomorrow.
I’ve reached a new level of pallidity. Quite happy with that. Too happy, in fact. Meditated on sadness afterwards.
At 1900 Eccentric Stepbrother arrives home with Even More Eccentric friends to find me lying prostrate* along sofa in lounge.
* Prostrate != prostate despite what Great Auntie Jean busts out with.
I’ve still not cracked a smile. BTW, your room still smells like feet.
THURSDAY XX FEBRUARY
I’ve definitely caught Gothman’s eye. He’s been staring at me from across the road every day this week. He waits for the bus heading further out west but that bus comes and goes without him. He watches it leave, reappears and examines me from across the road. I know he’s interested. Should I make the first move?
FRIDAY XXI FEBRUARY*
* Who thought we needed the superfluous ‘r’ in FebRuary? (Possibly a pirate.)
‘Twas Gothman who made the first move. He becked from across the road with one bony finger. A shiver ran down my spine. Is this the first sign of true love?
I’m still not sure which Goth sect he belongs to. I’m hoping for a Vampire Goth but he might be a Poser Goth who listens to Marilyn Manson and Linkin Park. I plan to hide behind foliage on Monday and follow* him on his travels.
* Note that I did not write ‘stalk’. Because that would be CREEPY. Also: illegal.
Nobody will miss me at school, except for perhaps Ronald McDonald, who threaded a single sunflower through the crevice of my locker today.
There was a note attached.
He thinks I’ll be impressed that he looked up the Sex Pistols.
MONDAY XXIV FEBRUARY
Spent all weekend fantasising about Gothman. I’m considering a visit to a spray-on whitening salon. I sport very unfortunate inverse tan lines on account of my deathly pale face.
I’ve painted my fingernails black and cut gaping holes in my stockings. This will have to do.
CONVERSATION ABOUT STOCKINGS WITH UNSCARY DEAN, WHO WAS ON GATE DUTY THIS MORNING WHEN MY BUS ROCKED UP:
The informal syllogism proceeded thusly:
HIM: Respectable girls do not wear holey stockings to school.
ME: The unrespectable girl insists upon wearing holey stockings to school. Therefore, all girls who wear holey stockings are unrespectable, no?
*The cackling of distant kookaburras*
ME: Your lack of respect has nothing to do with the state of my stockings ANYHOW.
As planned, spent this morning lurking behind bush near bus stop. Eventually caught sight of Gothman, who stared across road in vain search for me. He scratched his head with that bony finger of his and stalked off towards the graveyard.
I followed at a safe distance.
Have to admit, I am slightly disappointed Gothman stopped in at the old people’s home on Fox Trap Road. One can only assume he was visiting an elderly relative. He’s not nearly as lonesome and aloof as I had hoped. He re-emerged 10 minutes later and scurried off towards the highway. I lost his trail somewhere near the Catholic Church.
Will try again tomorrow.
TUESDAY 25 FEBRUARY
A bizarre turn of events.
I followed Gothman to three separate villas in Roseville Estate, known only for its gated little houses and abundance of Zimmer frames. Gothman stayed at each residence for no more than 20 minutes. I wonder what he carries in his briefcase. I’m thinking he sells something boring like insurance or vacuum cleaners. O well. Even Goths must earn a crust.
Got caught by Unscary Dean, sneaking into school via back gate. I said I felt ill.
“You do look ghostly pale,” he says. “See the doctor. Ask for a blood test.” He then launches into a spiel about the virtues of eating organ meats. He rounds off his lecture by listening the ingredients in his dear old mother’s Liver & Bacon pie.
I wonder if Goths can eat guts. Sounds appropriately evil, though not in the least delectable.
WEDNESDAY 26 FEBRUARY
Just when I thought yesterday was weird. I followed Gothman to a ramshackle wooden house in an oasis of green forest. I have little idea on how to ever find it again because it required a bus trip all the way in to the central interchange, whereupon Gothman ducked from bus to bus like a demon possessed.
Upon reaching forest, I thought I’d arrived in some Grimm’s fairytale. I never did see the big bad wolf, but half expected to.
Gothman bounds carefree up a winding, cobbled path and pulls black envelopos from his letterbox. He rips one open.
I can’t believe Gothman lives here, in this cute little cottage with honeysuckle growing along the picket fence. Terracotta pots of pansies decorate the front yard. I duck round the side of the cottage and peer inside.
Window is ajar. I can hear talkback radio. The house smells of corned beef and white pepper. I’m reminded of my grandmother’s house on a Sunday afternoon.
Sure enough, I see a head of wispy, white curls. The old woman on the sofa wears a floral dress and fluffy slippers. She’s talking back to the talkback radio.
Enter Goth Boy:
I’d imagined a deeper voice. He sounds disappointingly normal.
“Oh, hullo Gavin,” she says.
Gavin? Another let down. I’d hoped for something a little more exotic. “Meredyth Mayhem” would be better. Any girly name would do, followed by an abstract noun.
Gavin takes a seat.
Gavin gets up and disappears into the kitchen.
The old woman sniffs. “You just wait til you get to my age! Then you’ll know when it’s time to shuffle off!”
I realise Gavin is about to catch sight of my luminous face through the window as he emerges from the kitchen with two cups of tea. I depart.
Bitter disappointment. Gavin is no more a Goth than Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
THURSDAY 27 FEBRUARY
Just when I thought things could not get weider. I waited for the bus to school. Caught sight of Gavin across the road. Not nearly so creepy anymore. I looked the other way.
Seconds later I’m startled by a tap on the shoulder. There’s no need for bodily contact from a stranger, even if we have shared breath on a stuffy school bus.
I spin round, ready to star down the little shoulder tapper when I see Gavin the Try-hard Goth hovering over my shoulder. Wide-eyed, he stares right into me. He beckons with that bony finger. My heart pounds. He must have een me following him after all! Still, I’m street savvy enough not to duck off with Gavin behind a native flowering bush for a “chat”.
Nope. I’m going nowhere.
My bus arrives. Sweet relief! I dash to the front of the queue. Grumpy Bus Driver examines my pass* (which looks the same every morning).
* He simply can’t believe how stunning I am and doesn’t want to stare at my actual face. Obviously.
I score a seat right at the back. The children are eerily quiet this morning. Today was one of those days when it felt like everyone was staring at me for no reason. Ever have one of those days? Anyway, it started on the bus.
I sit. I stare out the window. I turn up the volume on my Walkman*.
* Why yes, yes I did score a retro cassette player, at Salvos, for 20c. Suck on that consumerist society!
Then I’m startled again, by that most unheimlich tap upon the shoulder. Lo, Gavin the Try-hard Goth is occupying the seat* right next to me. He won’t give up! How did this creeper sneak onto a school bus, anyway? I yank my big puffy 1980s headset off my ears and turn on the facials. I attempt ‘bored slash annoyed’.
* It’s not even a “seat”. It’s a veritable crack. This guy is so slim he only needs a crack upon which to sit. (Impressed with myself for avoidance of dangling preposition.)
“Sorry to disturb you.” Gavin extends a bony hand. He’s expecting me to grab a hold and shake it.
No way I’m touching that thing.
Gavin shrugs. “I often get that.”
He balances his briefcast upon his lap and clicks open the latches.
I crane my neck, expecting to see a bus-bomb.
(I’m not actually sure what a bus-bomb would look like, which I hadn’t realised til that moment.)
Documents. Gavin pulls out a wad of papers and whips out a blue biro. Very officious. Most unsettling.
“The name’s Reaper,” he says. “Gavin Reaper. Grim for short.*”
* In what universe is “Grim” short for “Gavin? I mean, aside from being alliterative there is no syllabic commonality.
The bus hurtles along. I’ve missed my stop at Goolooroo High and now I’m headed towards the primary school.
“Just some paperwork to get you across the River Styx.”
His tone is decidedly flat.
“Bog off,” I say. “You’re chasing the wrong girl.”
“Oh.” Gavin Repear looks unsure for a moment, then flips to the front of his ring-binder. “You’re not… Allegra Joy Harper of 1037 Blackett Street–“
He knows I am. His spiel continues.
“We need to book you onto the Styx Ferry. Unless you’d rather swim, that is.” He attempts a smile, which rapidly dissolves. “No, quite right. That wasn’t funny the first time, what with the crocodiles… Now, would you prefer a cabin with a private balcony? Any special meal requirements? Vegetarian? Wheat allergy? Lactose intolerance?“*
* He also said, quite rudely, that I look like all of the above.
He flicks his pen absentmindedly against his gaunt, white cheek. It makes an unsettling hollow sound. I wonder if I should tell him his cheek is smeared in blue leakage. I decide not to.
“Are you for real?” I ask instead.
“You don’t believe me, do you,” Gavin says. It’s more of a statement than a question. I don’t dignify it with an answer*.
* If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. People will concot from your mood something far worse than you could think up, anyhow.
Gavin gazes out the window at lamp posts darting by. “Nobody ever believes me, yet death comes to us all. I don’t know why anyone regards my appearance as a surprise.”
The Goolooroo Primary stop is coming up. The bus slows.
“If you’ll do me the favour of taking the brochure,” Gavin says, offering me a glossy pamphlet, “I’ll get back to you at a later date.”
He proffers his promotional material in one cold hand and grips my wrist with the other.
I have no choice. I must take the cursed thing or he won’t let me off. I whip the document off him and dart off the bus. I run all the way down Main Street to the high school and have never felt so safe and secure, enclosed in the bowels of the dank, rodenty, haunted basement, shivering with something other than cold — adrenaline? — in front of the retro computer.
Ronald appeared with some coursework. I lunged in for a bearhug.
He didn’t seem to mind.
SATURDAY 1TH* OF MARCH
* Oneth should be a word. I’m going to start a trend.
I avoided buses yesterday. In fact, I avoided all vehicles, precariously propped up things, boiling vats of liquid (ie. Mum’s vegetable soup) and bodies of water (incl. bath). Stayed in bed all day. Can’t possibly die in bed.
On reflection, many people do.
Today, 1830: I’ve decided to get out of bed. After 53 consecutive hours under a sheet I feel the onset of bedsores. I’m wondering how long it takes to die of bedsores.
Later: Made myself a cup of herbal tea. Took several aspirin. Wondered if a chamomile-aspirin concoction can kill* susceptible individuals under the right circumstances.
* So I slam danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, mainly to prove my living status to myself.
Mother’s out all weekend with latest Love Interest. Eccentric Step-brother is also absent. I’m badly in need of banal company. (Brother, you’re in demand now that you’ve fixed the foot problem.)
1500: As a Goth I do not fear death, but I’m starting to get skittish and jittery. Have emptied bowels. Apparently this happens before childbirth and immediately following death. I’m considering my own status. Is it possible that I’m already dead?
1530: Finally summoned the courage to peruse Reaper’s glossy pamphlet. I don’t like to look at it. It reminds me that our meeting cannot have been a bad dream.
2335: Have read the brochure from cover to cover. I’m most reassured. The Styx Ferry has a billiard table, a bar and swimming pool. It’s more like a flash cruiseliner, actually. The 13 hour journey to The Pearly Gates includes meals. I’m having the cranberry stuffed chicken thigh with orange glaze, followed by cherry compote, parsely roasted pumpkn and green courgettes.
I’m yet to decide on breakfast. Will have to sleep on it.
One Slight Concern: Cause of Death. I’m satisfied, however, that I’m not dead yet.
Eccentric Step-brother eventually arrived home looking unshaven and tired. Saw me sitting at the breakfast bar eating soggy breakfast cereal and didn’t bat an eyelid. Not even a smart-aleck comment about my pallor.
Instead he goes, “I thought you were only eating black things these days*, and that’s whiat. That’s the last of the damn milk, girl.”
* I WAS OKAY so just shut up because vegemite on burnt toast tastes like crap.
Not the sort of thing anyone’d say to a ghost, right? Even Eccentric Step-brother would know a ghost for looking. Right?
MONDAY 3 MARCH
I’m still not dead. Ventured a ride on the bus to school. Did not see G. Reaper. Our meetings must have been a series of caffeine induced hallucinations.
TUESDAY 2 MARCH
Had a dozen emails, all marked as spam:
One note from a Minerva Brandy in urgent need of a bank account.
Another from Rolexa Hammertime, who wants to sell me a genuine fake watch.
Ten separate emails from Mr G. Reaper, reminding me in descending levels of politeness to send my completed documents or “there’ll be hell to pay.”
Not mad keen on that idea.
I posted the documents after school, fast post.
WEDNESDAY 3 MARCH
I’m getting more antsy by the day. Threw out incriminating evidence of my sad love life: love letters to imaginary boyfriends, chip packets under the bed, moth-eaten undies. SMSed Absent Neglectful Mother. Told her I loved her anyway. Considered an apology* to Eccentric Stepbrother for being a moody moo.
* Figure it’ll do to write it down here. Consider yerself told, bro.
I was even nice to Ronald. Left him a beautiful dying rose. Now I know nothing will come of anything, I am reckless with this weary heart.
I caught sight of G. Reaper this morning as the first bus arrived. He did that creepy beckoning thing* again.
* Then again, he may have been itching his nose. Can’t see him very well because he’s obscured by a bush.
I have several burning questions: cause of death, afterlife, that sort of thing. Must ask him tomorrow morning. I’ll duck across the road between the first and second buses.
That way, I’ll be sure to catch the third.
I originally wrote Diary of a Goth Girl for a British anthology, but after that went out of print I rewrote it (and illustrated it) set in Australia. The bright skies and heat of Australia contrast ironically with the clothing and sensibilities of a Goth.
Flash Divining The Future
I will meet my husband tonight.
I’m not yet sure what he looks like. But, like the perfect pair of shoes, I’ll know him when I see him. I’ve met him in my mind, in these daydreams I call ‘flash forwards’: a hazy, pale face with brownish hair.
Well, that narrows it down.
Tonight is the Saturday before my thirty-second birthday. I have always known that this would be the night.
As a little girl, I thought everyone knew the future. Once I saw an elderly woman fall in a lifeless slump to the kitchen floor. I was eating cornflakes at the time and asked my mother if we could check on her.
“We can’t see Grandma today, dear. She’s got her bridge.”
Mother regretted it later. She sat erect and silent across the drawing room, expressionless upon the wing backed chair. She wondered, no doubt, how much I understood.
I knew more than she. I’d known the last time I lip-brushed my grandmother’s downy cheek that I would not be kissing her again.
“The wisdom of children.” That’s all Mother ever said about it. She spoke to my father in a whisper as he rested his wet face against her shoulder. They didn’t know I watched.
I learned from Mother’s unsettled looks and withdrawal of affection that I was not to speak of flash forwards. I haven’t mentioned them since. For one thing, I can do without the inevitable epithet of ‘Clare the Clairvoyant’. Also, I can’t understand those who choose to make a living out of their eerie gifts, destined forever to live on the fringes of polite society, lurking in shame with others of their caste: prostitutes, drug dealers and ex-cons.
The emerald dress I pull from my closet has waited four and half years for this occasion. When I saw it on the mannequin I knew this garment had been sewn for me. I’m not the first girl to say that of a dress. My friend Emily has similar feelings each time she visits the mall.
“It was meant to be!” she says, striding out of another store in another pair of heels. Emily tries on many dresses. If one happens to fit she considers herself married to the thing. My own relationship with the emerald dress runs much deeper.
Whenever I envisage my husband I see him through the lingering white haze. An auburn head rests against his chest. My own. Grandma always had a wing mirror above her dressing table. Whenever I looked into that mirror I saw my own face from three different angles. That’s how I see myself now, as others do, gazing down from an omniscient point in the ceiling or sky. These visions play out in black and white. Except for the dress. Whenever I meet my man I am wearing emerald green.
I tear the dust cover from the dress and hold velvet against my skin. I purchased the garment one size larger than required, knowing that four years later I’d be three kilos heavier. I accept this as my lot. We only need look to our parents to know our physical fate. Each of us thickens around the waist. Our skin thickens too, in a metaphorical sense. I don’t mind the transformation from youth into womanhood. Unlike Emily, I don’t bother with broth diets and weight-loss shakes and yearly donations to the gym.
“Oh Clare, you’re such a fatalist!” Emily pinches her waist. She is disgusted by the two centimetres of tissue she can now grasp between her thumb and forefinger. “If we learned to enjoy sit-ups we could have our twenty-year-old stomachs back. No?”
“We’ll never have our immaturity back,” I say. “Let’s be grateful for health.”
Emily doesn’t know it, but she will die young. I wish to tell her. But it’s not the sort of thing one mentions to a friend.
Emily’s right. I am a fatalist. We are all on a predetermined path. We like to think we’re free but this is mere delusion. Each of us makes decisions based only on the synapses which have already formed in our brains. Past experiences dictate our present. Even a murderer thinks the killing was a good idea at the time.
My own life path is an easy one. For that, I’m grateful. I’d loathe these flash forwards if I knew I was in for a lifetime of woe. But Emily’s fate pains me. I want to shake her. This week she’s picked up another inappropriate man at some bar.
“I know you’re going to love this one!” Emily’s memory is conveniently short. I haven’t liked any of her boyfriends. Neither has she, come to think of it. Not after the first three months of pheromonal bliss.
Emily believes in the ridiculous concept of ‘Soul Mates’. She overlooks all shortcomings in a bloke while wishing, hoping, praying he’s The One. Emily doesn’t understand that there is no One. For Emily there are three Ones –four if you count The One she had in school. But he’s long gone, married to one of his other Ones, and I once told Emily she shouldn’t have dropped him just because of an easily remedied bad haircut.
Apparently I know nothing about life and love. That’s because I’ve not been with a man. My chastity is not a religious thing. I just don’t bother. Knowing for certain that I’ll meet him tonight, the Saturday before my thirty-second birthday, I haven’t required a series of romantic stuff-ups to bolster my sexual ego. It’s easy to relax when I know, for certain, that I can’t hurry love.
My future husband is not so lucky. I sense he has had many women. I see a white dress and a tuxedo and know that he has married before. By the time I move in with him he’ll be fully house-trained and grateful for any woman who doesn’t nag him about his driving, even if I can’t cook like his mother.
I’m not bothered by his past, even though my parents won’t like it. We women are fortunate like that. We can overlook the previous lovers, just not the subsequent ones. Men like to think they’re both first and last on our lists. Men, of course, are delusional.
This fellow will be my first. But he won’t be my last. I’ll marry again, at the age of sixty-seven, to another wonderful man who, like me, must lose his first spouse to cancer.
Emily does not understand. “Honestly, Clare! You’ll never meet anyone if you stay home every night, slumped on your sofa in jim-jams.”
Emily tells me chocolate is laced with ‘bad fats’. I know not to worry about such things. I’ll live til ninety-two and a quarter. That’s plenty old enough for me, thank you very much. I’ll die peacefully in my sleep of ‘myocardial infarction’. The heart attack will be painless, and will finish me off just months before a growth in my bowel starts to deposit blood in my stools. I do prefer the quicker option.
Not that I have a choice.
Twin boys will attend my funeral. Their names are Eric and Joel. These unborn children have labelled themselves. I’ll give birth at the age of thirty-eight, releasing two eggs at once just before my fertility gives up the ghost.
My parents, bless them, don’t speak of my failure to fill their house with grandbabies. Perhaps they chide themselves for placing all their eggs in the one child. It hasn’t escaped my notice that Mother has lined the wall in their entrance hall with photographs of other people’s grandchildren.
Just last week, Dad sat me down for a heart-to-heart. I knew it was coming, not because of any extra sensory perception but because he invited me fishing for the first time since he informed me about birds, bees and STDs. It took him three and a half hours to get to his point. But he eventually summoned courage to mention what I knew was coming. As usual, he couched his sermon in academic terminology.
“It’s a great shame,” he said, “that human physiology hasn’t kept up with the cultural shift.” He was interrupted by a tug on his line and reeled in another jellyfish. Symbolic, I thought, of a human foetus.
He told me of all the thirty-something professional women visiting his surgery, each asking for IVF referrals. He wanted to have The Conversation so neither of us would look back in regret.
“Don’t worry, Daddy,” I said. “Everything will work out.”
He ruffled my hair. “You’ve always been such a trusting child.”
Emily pulls up outside. I open my front door, dressed in emerald green.
“Oooh, you haven’t changed your mind, have you?”
Emily is about to chide me for failure to apply make-up. Princess Emily, who has plastered her face in L’Oreal and bathed in Chanel, insists I’d look far healthier with rouge and lippy. But make-up is a form of dishonesty.
Besides, the painted look might remind him of his ex-wife. I’ve seen her, too, through the haze. In flash forwards I notice the red of her lips blowing him a kiss. She hasn’t left his life yet. But she will.
Emily grasps me by the shoulders. “You have to let your hair down. Men prefer long hair.”
She is deluded. Perhaps this is her downfall. She thinks she knows far more about men than she really does. My man prefers an exposed nape, perfect for kissing. Over the years my hair will get shorter.
Emily scrabbles through her handbag and thrusts out a pink wand.
“No.” Tonight I expect a lingering kiss, and there’s nothing worse than a slimy snog.
“I know you don’t like set-ups,” Emily says, “but if you don’t like Donny you might go for Paul, though I think his floozy’s still in the picture.” The expert on men flaps her lips again.
The man-expert drives like a maniac. If I didn’t know the future I’d worry for our lives. I grip the seat out of instinct. Emily zips through town while I close my eyes and pretend I’m elsewhere.
“And what’s Paul like?” I’ve not heard the end of Donny and his musculature. I’m more interested in the other workmate.
I knew his name started with ‘P’. I’ve always been on the lookout for a Peter. My flash forwards have their own perverse sense of humour and can lead me astray. I’ve known only two Peters in my life: the smelly man who works for the local butcher and a family friend of my parents, recently divorced. When I caught Peter sizing me up over a cocktail in my father’s drawing room I got the heebie-jeebies. But when Emily mentioned a Paul in passing I knew I’d got the name wrong. Much relief. I remember retreating to the bathroom to hyperventilate.
“Paul’s all right. Balding, though.” History repeats. Emily has written off my future husband due to a few missing strands.
At the age of forty my husband will settle for the number zero look, banishing hair from his life forever. I’ve seen his smooth head many times in flash forwards and I’m more accustomed to the bald image. Tonight, my man will have the most hair I’ll ever see him with. Two strands fewer tomorrow, four fewer next week. He worries about it. He needn’t.
Emily is holding my hand. She doesn’t need to pull. I recognise the loud group of twenty-somethings. I recognise the bar staff. I’ve visited this night many times in my flash forwards, enjoying the excitement of first love. It is quite possible that by over-imagining, I have memorised every word of the evening. I realise now: the novelty has worn off.
Emily mistakes my ease for boredom. She squeezes the skin on my upper arm. I’d jump, but I was expecting her pinch. I see my future husband, perched upon a barstool. I know that Paul is always half an hour early rather than five minutes late. Tardiness stresses him out.
Another man, wearing black leather, leans against the bar. From a glance anyone can tell this bloke owns the room. His smile is easy, his shoulders relaxed. He looks me directly in the eye.
Emily presents him like a well-chosen birthday gift which, quite rightly, he is.
Donny leans forward to kiss my cheek. I’ve never been comfortable with the custom, ducking and diving as I try to predict which side my new acquaintance homes in on. I wish I could foretell these things but the problem, you see, is that I cannot read the future until the future has been written, and my fellow kisser is in the same boat.
I have a nanosecond in which to get it right.
I get it wrong. That’s how I find my lips brushing against Donny’s. Paul watches with interest, glancing up from his gin and tonic. An old man’s drink, always the fogey. I love that about Paul. He’ll be wearing his vest tonight too, with the last frost expected. And that’ll be Paul’s Old Spice competing for airspace across the crowded bar. There’s nothing like a fragrance to provoke vivid flashbacks and flash forwards.
“Isn’t he brilliant?” Emily whispers in my ear.
But Donny is too confident. Too handsome. I don’t trust men who scan the room for other available women as they engage in phatic communion with me. Emily doesn’t see through his charade.
Paul sips his drink. The voice of Elvis fills the room. The patrons talk louder. Intimate strangers speak into unfamiliar ears, the perfect excuse to hover close. I hover near my man.
“Another drink, Paul?” I might as well be saying, “Fancy a cup of tea, love?” I speak to my future husband with the familiarity of a wife. I see myself calling Paul as I stand behind a bench. Our kitchen will look hopelessly outdated long after stainless steel has gone out of fashion. It comes back in again, eventually.
Oh God. I’ve almost done it now. My hand just cupped Paul’s. I’ve done it out of habit. It was only a fleeting touch but I feel him startle. To Paul, my touch is electric. He will reveal this later. For me, Paul’s large hand is familiar and comfortable. I enjoy our brief touch but for different reasons. I regret that I’ve visited this moment so many times in my head; what would it be like to experience the initial throes of love? I’m not yet thirty-two yet this moment seems a lifetime ago. I want to feel this so-called electricity. I want to feel it for myself.
I study Paul’s face. I’ve seen him only through the haze. This is what he looks like before he chips his front tooth. He’ll tumble off his new ride-on mower. I will suggest he peruse the instruction manual, but will he listen?
Paul smiles, that uncomfortable grimace of his, and looks into his beer. I admire the friendly crinkling around my man’s eyes. I realise we haven’t yet settled into the easy companionship of loved ones. Beads of sweat glisten on his upper lip, but it’s not hot. We’ll need to make polite conversation.
“Nice night for it,” I say.
“Yep.” Paul has never been one for small talk. I know his favourite topics. But if I ask him about gardening I’ll never shut him up. How many years will I have to listen to tales of pruning and glasshouses and Paul’s blasted vegetable patch?
Paul downs the dregs of his second drink and I succumb to temptation.
“First day of spring, tomorrow,” I say. “Lots to do in the yard.”
Paul is relieved. He laughs, rubs the side of his face and relaxes his shoulders. “God, yes! I just spent the afternoon laying sheep manure over the spuds.”
He talks of calcium and nitrogen and compares the shit of different farm animals, all in that animated way I know so well. I am nodding. A string pulls my head from above. Is this my other self, looking down? I don’t understand how it works. But I can’t stop nodding.
Paul thinks I want him to carry on.
He’s onto mangel-wurzel now, which apparently needs full sun and well-composted soil. My head turns.
Donny catches my eye. I am attractive to him now, a prize to be snatched from a man of lesser hair. I hold Donny’s gaze for two seconds longer than I would prefer. I do not pull these strings. This is my fate.
Moments later I am startled by a warm, firm body pressed against mine.
“So sorry.” Donny touches my elbow. I feel the so-called electricity. I have seen this before, from above, but have not dared linger upon the flash forward. This all feels far too much like adultery. But I’m starting to see what all the fuss is about.
Paul has stopped talking. He looks into his empty glass, and even takes a sip of nothing. I can’t bear it. I feel Paul’s pain as if it’s my own. But my heart pounds for another reason, equally. For the first time, I am swooning over a tall, dark stranger. I am not in the habit of using a word such as ‘swoon’. Not lightly.
“Thought I’d rescue my date.” Donny leads me away.
I don’t turn back to check on Paul. But I know, from many flashes forward, that he sits with his elbows on the bar, head in hands.
My man cannot fall in love with me yet. I’m too forward, too self-sufficient. He knows I don’t need him yet.
But he will prove his chivalry, if only to himself. Dear Paul will rescue me later on, after I’ve been ravished and abandoned in the car park. I’ve resisted these adulterous flash forwards with the muscled man in leather because I need to understand that other kind of flash: the electricity of spontaneous passion.
Just this once.
Away With The Fairies The Legend of the Tooth Fairy
If you head down to your local shopping precinct on a Saturday you might catch sight of a boy slouching in an alleyway – that shadowy gap between the bookstore and where your mum buys her skirts. The boy might be on the scrawny side but he’s older than he looks. That’s why bouncers won’t let Benny Bonedigger into bars.
“You can’t be eighteen, son. Come on, give your big brother back his purse or I’ll call the coppers.”
So Benny buys himself a burger for his second dinner, hoping to bulk up. If you keep an eye on him, you’ll see him pluck out the gherkin with those white-knuckled middle-class fingers of his. He’ll fling the pickle against a shop window. Watch the gherkin slide down the glass. It leaves a slimy snail-trail in its wake. Tomorrow morning, a middle-aged retail assistant will wipe her shop-front clean with a fresh paper towel, a hand-gun of bubbly-blue and much clicking of the tongue.
Benny Bonedigger grins at the thought of it.
Benny’s life lacks excitement. Teachers say he’s “away with the faeries” most lessons. He gets sidelined at football for cussing at the ref. His father won’t let him on the internet after dinner.
So this is how Benny finds his fun, each Saturday evening after his bangers and mash. He waits until his parents settle in front of the movie on ITV4, makes out he’s got to write a paper on The Black Death, then escapes from his second-storey window. Benny negotiates his way down the fire escape. He’s careful how he goes. Benny might be a mischief-maker but he doesn’t want to get himself killed: not by falling off a rickety ladder. And not by getting the bash, either, though that would accrue more glory.
That’s why Benny picks on kids his own size, preferably smaller. This narrows down his options. Twelve-year-olds are good. They get about in gaggles of ten, but there’s no safety in numbers. These kids make mischief by hurling sugar babies at taxis, or scrawling tags on street-signs with markers nicked off a teacher. They stuff empty crisp packets between the slats of those wooden benches in the open mall. But don’t be fooled. The dark hoods conceal frightened eyes. Long cuffs conceal flimsy hands. These kids are scared and shouldn’t, by rights, be out after dark. They’re not about to argue with a boy who goes by the name of Benny Bonedigger.
An ominous tune – heavy on the skewed guitar and synthesised heart-beats – plays through Benny’s mind. The soundtrack builds as he approaches his target.
“Hey girlie-boy, spare me some cash?”
Benny has his act down pat: a faux-friendly request reinforced by a switch-blade held low.
The kid shakes its head. The mates scarper.
“You sure about that? I think you can spare me a tenner.”
Benny imagines himself the lead actor of a gangster flick. The darkness of winter, with its low, city smog, paints an authentic landscape in grainy black and white. Benny’s mugging gear consists of ripped jeans, a woollen hat and his school overcoat. But he imagines himself three feet taller, all decked out like a gangster: tailored suit, cufflinks, chunky watch, the lot.
“Thank-you very much,” Benny says, swiping the cash. “Hmmm. Let me relieve you of that mobile.” Benny shows his teeth. The knife glints under a street-lamp. “Dry your eyes, mate. Daddy will buy you a later model.”
The music climaxes in Benny’s head. The synthesised heartbeat ceases. An owl hoots; scared footsteps fade to silence as the victim runs off-screen. The illusory eye of a bird’s eye camera follows Benny as he saunters away with his prize.
Benny is wearing a pair of second-hand trainers. The kid’s brighty-whities pinch a bit around his big toe, but muggers can’t be choosers.
Benny returns to the shadows of that alleyway. His own heart rate is steady. These kids are too easy. He’s ready for a bigger challenge.
You may have noticed the old fellow in the long overcoat: the one with the emphysemic cough and yellow stumps for teeth. Nobody knows where he’s going. Nobody knows where he’s been. Like Benny, this old man hangs about the shopping precinct of an evening. He peeps around corners, skulks about in shadow, avoids the light of the moon. He keeps his one good eye glued to the footpath, swooping with surprising agility upon any loose change. He sometimes mutters sweet nothings into the sleeve of his anorak before dashing off with apparent urgency.
Strangely, this old man carries a briefcase: an incongruous fashion-statement of Italian calf-skin leather. Most passersby do not dwell on the inconsistency; they assume the old boy nicked the case off a businessman commuting into The City, and good on him. But the expensive briefcase intrigues Benny. In movies, cases like this contain three rows of cash. Well, now. Benny must find out.
Another film score builds inside his head. He readjusts imaginary cuff-links and checks an imaginary watch.
He approaches the old fellow from behind, waiting until he bends double to retrieve 20p, planted earlier. Benny grasps the briefcase with two firm hands. The old man is more wily than he looks. They each grunt and gasp. Eventually, Benny stumbles backwards into shrubbery. The old man snarls and spits, for his mugger holds the loot. There is a short chase down the shopping precinct but Benny, in the prime of his youth, scales an industrial wall. He jumps with a thud onto a grocer’s skip and disappears into a camouflage of cabbage leaves and rotten spuds.
The old man clutches at his chest, panting heavily. Venous hands clasp knobbly knees.
Benny Bonedigger waits among the vegetables, sleeve to nose. Confident the old man has gone, he makes his way back to his semi-detached, grinning like a kiddie with a Santa sack. He sees shady characters waiting for him behind every bush. That’s adrenaline for you. He shinnies back up the fire escape, jimmies open his bedroom window and flops onto his bed. The house is silent but for rhythmic breathing from his parents’ bedroom and the odd clink from the central heating.
Moonlight peeps through the curtains, casting his bedroom in blue. Benny’s own pale eyes are made for the night-time; he opens the briefcase with trembling fingers and looks inside. He dare not breathe.
But someone has already relieved the old man of his cash. Instead, Benny finds a simple drawstring bag made of glimmering, velvety material. *Emeralds and rubies*. The old man is a jewel thief, no doubt.
His cold thumbs fumble as he opens the bag. The jewels fall like Scrabble letters into his palm. But these are no game pieces, and this is no game.
Benny lurches backwards.
Milk teeth, pinched off kiddies.
What kind of sicko gets about with a bag of sixty-three teeth in his briefcase? Benny sits hunched against his bed-head, staring at the ivory jewels scattered across his duvet. He can’t believe he touched those things. Even in dim light, he sees that these are no replicas. These are the real thing. Some of the teeth have pieces of bloodied flesh attached at the root. One of the little molars has something brown and glutinous – toast? – lodged between its cusps. Another appears to glint like a switchblade. Benny pokes it. Sure enough, it winks back. An amalgam filling catches the moonlight.
Benny loves a thrill, but this is not the kind he was after. Filled with disappointment, he scrapes the teeth back into the drawstring bag, throwing it to the furthest corner of his room.
Who *is* that old man? Might he be some dental assistant, selling teeth on the black market? Might he be a creepy taxidermist, specialising in authentic replica human heads? No, that’s plain ridiculous.
With instant clarity, Benny knows the answer.
The old man is a mass murderer. He kills his victims then nicks off with their teeth. On the telly, dental records identify a victim. With no teeth, the skinny guy in the anorak will never get caught. Genius. *Madness*. The madman is bound to come after Benny.
Benny’s got the shivers now. He creeps downstairs to check his parents have locked all the doors. He latches his window, good and tight. He thinks of jamming his bookcase against his bedroom door, but it’s heavy and he can’t be bothered shifting all the books. He’ll turn the nightlight on instead, the one in the hallway. He hasn’t needed that since he was fifteen, but he won’t be able to fall asleep without it.
Benny settles down, snuggled deep in his bed. He inhales the familiar scent of his pillow and holds a fluffy bear to his chest. He resists the urge to suck his thumb. (It needs a good wash after fiddling with those teeth.)
It’s hard to say when, but Benny eventually falls asleep: a fitful slumber, interrupted by murderous visions and silent screams.
At ten past four, Benny is woken by scamperings and rustlings. In the movies, the victim always sits bolt upright in bed. But Benny doesn’t move. His eyes are wide-open but his body is the victim of sleep-paralysis. From his lying-down position he can see a thin line of light coming under his bedroom door. Shadowy things flit down the hallway: small figures, otherworldly. Maybe it’s just his Mum, up for a pee. He waits for a reassuring hiss of the cistern. He hears nothing.
He forces himself to close his eyes.
When he opens them again, he expects to see the football poster tacked to his ceiling. But no. He sees a wrinkled face – a familiar face – with one good beady eye and yellow stumps for teeth.
“Don’t make a sound,” says the deep, whispery voice. One chilly hand is clapped across Benny’s mouth, but the boy cannot scream if he tries. The creature’s other hand grips a length of peppermint dental tape. Benny smells the mint – the aroma is overpowering. He feels the twine cut across his Adam’s apple.
“Shhh,” says the man-creature, backing away.
Benny sits up in bed, nice and slow. That’s when he notices the other one: the lithe figure by the bookshelf, fingering his CDs. The companion, too, is all scrawn and bone. He wears fatman pants which only serve to emphasise his cavernous abdomen. He wears a football shirt in colours Benny has never seen. Skinny arms emerge from the sleeves; these are the hirsute forearms of a gorilla.
The hairy one is not impressed with Benny’s collection of 80s music. He follows the boy’s gaze.
“You be staring at my luxurious, hairy limbs.” He speaks with a lisp for he’s got no teeth at all. “This thick growth be for reaching under pillows. You has no idea how cold it be, fishing around for loose teef on the flipside of a pillow.”
Now the other one speaks. “Begs your pardon for barging in like this. Let me introduce us-selves. You and me met earlier this evening. And my esteemed boss, well, he needs little by way of introduction.”
Benny isn’t in the mood for forging friendships. “If you’ve come for the case, take it and leave.” He hasn’t got much of a memory for faces. But he’s never seen the hairy one in his life. He would never forget such arms.
The hairy one introduces himself. “I be none other than Al Dente. You can call me Al.”
It may be the shock and disbelief, but Benny looks blank.
“A-K-A ‘The *Toof* Faery’.”
“Yeah, right.” Benny’s false bravado morphs into semi-confidence. There’s no doubt about it; he must be immersed in one very lucid dream. He pinches himself, and it hurts. Maybe he’s dreaming that too. Entirely possible, and a ridiculous experiment. “If you’re The Tooth Faery then who’s your mate? Wee Willy Winky?” Benny slaps his knee at the joke of it all. That hurts too.
His visitors are not amused. “I’m Tony,” the Anorak replies. “Tony The Mouth, Tooth Faery Contractor.” He hands over a business card – it’s ratty at the edges and dirty at the creases. It’s his one and only copy – he reaches for it back.
Benny releases his grip on the card and narrows his eyes. “How come you’re both gummy as a bear? I always thought tooth faeries had teeth.”
“Who told you that tripe? The Easter Bunny, me thinks. S’pose he told you chickens have teef and all.” The Tooth Faery Boss has spied the drawstring bag. He picks it up and fishes around inside. Now he grabs a tooth between his dirty thumb and forefinger. To Benny’s disgust, The Tooth Faery grinds it to dust between his hardy gums. He smacks his lips, as if enjoying a salted peanut at a birthday party.
“Mmm,” the Tooth Faery says, licking his fingers. “I knows how to pick ‘em. Let me be explaining something to you…”
“All right, Betty. We was much impressed by your thieving this evening. We likes the way you be creeping about of a night. You be good and skinny so’s you can slope all-of-a-stealth round bedroom doors, snagging the loot without no fuss. We followed you home ‘cos we likes how you work. Tony here, he be retiring next month and I been keeping an eye out for a replacement, like.”
The Tooth Faery digs into his bag of tooth lollies and shovels a few more into his gob. Benny winces at the crunch. He’d rather hear fingernails down a chalkboard.
“Good news is, Benny Bonedigger, you be the new recruit.”
“Recruited for what, exactly?”
“Apprentice Tooth Collector. In our culture, the fallen tooths of Yuumin kiddies be delicacies. Just like saffron, only fragrant… Like caviar, only crunchy…. Like truffles, only – ”
“I don’t want to be no stinking contractor for no stinking faery boss.” This is a nightmare. Not a dream. Benny Bonedigger summons up courage by squeezing the leg of his teddy bear.
The Tooth Faery must detect reluctance in Benny’s tone for it’s now that he whips out the headless electric toothbrush. He wears it concealed in his elasticised waistband.
Benny gulps. He doesn’t like the look of that weapon, not one little bit. He wonders if it’s loaded with rechargeable double A’s.
“I do appreciate the job offer,” Benny says. “In fact, I’m rather flattered to be head-hunted like this. But the careers counsellor at school would prefer to see me engaged in something more creative… more – ”
That’s when The Mouth whips out the big pliers. Benny has no idea where they came from. The fellow must keep them on quick draw.
“Okey dokey.” Benny holds up his palms. He nods enthusiastically, which is strange, because ‘enthusiastic’ isn’t really the word for his current predicament. Benny thinks he’d better be keeping his mouth shut from here on in.
So The Tooth Faery continues, occasionally pressing his nail-bitten thumb onto the rubbery button of the electric toothbrush, to show who’s boss.
“You don’t be getting no choice in these matters.” The Tooth Faery hisses through his non-existent teeth. The electric toothbrush vibrates with menace. “No one ever asked *me* if *I* wants to be a Faery, but these things be innate, innit. It be something deep down inside of us, bursting to get out.” *Buzzzz*. “We can’t be helping what tempts us, Benny Bonedigger.”
Benny thinks of interjecting but he is silenced with a buzz.
Tony the Mouth produces a folded piece of A4 paper from the interior pocket of his anorak. He reads without inflection, like he’s been chosen to say thank-you to the guest speaker at a boring assembly.
He clears phlegm from his throat. “Your employment with The Tooth Faery will commence on this day and continue, subject to terms, until you kicks the bucket.” The Mouth coughs again. “I’m paraphrasing, mind.”
“Get on with it,” urges the boss.
“As contractor, you will gather coins what people drop on the streets. You will exchange aforementioned coins for spare teeth what kiddies leave under their pillows of a night. You will be on the hunt at all times, peering about for loose coins and loose tooths. No cash jobs on the side. That means no day-lighting, you hear?”
The Tooth Faery boss reaches for a hip-flask and swigs something potent. “Wishing fountains be the best place for scouting out coins,” he says. “That be an insider tip for you. Giddy up, Mouth.” The Tooth Faery swallows another mouthful with a grimace and offers the concoction to Benny. “Now, be having a swig of me spearmint gargle, to grow some hairs on them nasty, naked arms. They be giving me the creeps, like one of them bald cats.”
Benny Bonedigger swallows reluctantly. He doesn’t like to share drink-bottles; you never know what you might catch. But he gulps it down, glad of the excuse for his watery eyes. “I’m more of a menthol man, myself,” he says.
The Boss pats his back with affection.
Tony The Mouth continues with his ramble, squinting at the page through a monocle. The Tooth Faery snaps his fingers and points to the floor. Benny obeys, gathering up his crumpled clothes, shoving the least rancid of his shirts into a rucksack.
The Mouth winds up his speech and passes Benny a quill, with an inkwell made of pewter. The contract is a series of stick figures, sketched by someone who must’ve skipped art class. Benny makes out a child sleeping, an H for his bed and a rectangle for his pillow. Those manic flourishes must symbolise teeth flying about all over the place – or a leaky quill.
Benny has had his own bank account for a few years now, and has perfected his signature. He dips the quill into silvery ink and wonders whose pillow is missing a feather.
The visitors swig and gargle by the window. They are in no urgent hurry. It has been a slow day for wobbly teeth.
A calm settles over Benny. Nothing matters anymore: not his boring lessons, not his A-levels, not even his career prospects. Benny Bonedigger has a job for life.
Benny follows his colleagues into the hallway. They each tiptoe past Benny’s snoring parents. They creep down the stairs and through the front room. Benny lingers in the entrance hall, gazing at the faded photograph of his mum and dad: the one taken at Blackpool Pleasure Beach before he was born. Benny never did like that picture. His father wears a 70s gravy-dipped moustache. His mother wears a floral sundress which flaps against her legs. Benny’s parents muddled along fine before him, and they’ll muddle along just as well after he has gone. Besides, they always knew he was different.
He grabs their picture from the wall and shoves it in his sack.
For little Benny Bonedigger, he won’t be coming back.
Moeroa didn’t really need a coat. She was only crossing the road. But a coat made it official: Tonight she would be paid for her work. She’d secured a real, official, proper, actual job.
She’d done jobs before, even babysitting. But only for her own brothers and sisters. As for money, Mum slipped her a dollar now and then for packing everyone’s lunchbox, right up to five bucks for cleaning chunder off the carpet. But a gold coin for sandwiches and a five-dollar note because Charleen was a sympathy-vomiter didn’t really count. Money from Charleen was called ‘pocket money’. But money from Cathy Ogden across the road would count as ‘pay’.
Cathy and Ray Ogden were grandparents, with full custody of their three granddaughters. Moeroa had caught snatches of complicated backstory. Trouble followed their middle son, in and out of jail. Drug related raruraru, she figured, and not just for personal use.
Moeroa didn’t even need to knock on the Ogdens’ door. Cathy had seen her coming and ushered Moeroa inside before the heat could escape.
“There’s kindling over there and logs. You know how to work a fire, don’t you, sweetheart? Just, don’t go burning the joint down, unless you get the girls out first, and then you have to burn the whole lot, including Ray’s junk out back so’s we can claim full insurance.” Cathy snorted to telegraph the joke.
Moeroa laughed politely.
“Go ahead and make a batch of biscuits while you’re here. I can’t guarantee the state of the oven so don’t look.”
“You look nice though, Cathy.”
“Oh, this old thing.” Cathy was dressed to the nines in her floral blouse and pressed slacks. She called ‘pants’ ‘slacks’. Moeroa was familiar with Cathy’s good blouse. Tonight she completed the effect with chunky jewels made out of Fimo or something.
“I like your new beads. Make them yourself?” Moeroa hung her own jacket on top of others near the door.
Ray appeared at the top of the stairwell and performed an arthritic twirl. “What about me? Don’t I scrub up?” Moeroa tensed up, thinking he might fall down the stairs. But he made it down in one piece.
As the most responsible babysitter in the whole of New Zealand, Moeroa listened carefully to the rest of Cathy’s instructions, and then the olds were backing out the wagon.
Now she was utterly alone — an odd feeling, especially with three noisy girls for company.
The girls competed to show Moeroa how fast they could do the jigsaw puzzles. “Them bits were always missing,” Mercedes explained.
Porsche built a jagged mess out of Legos and insisted it made a palace.
Harlee danced gravity-defying hip hop with four scraggly Barbies and one badass Ken. Someone had inked Ken up in sparkly gel pen tatts, all over his plastic arms and upper back. “He didn’t come with clothes except for stuck-on grundies, see?”
Moeroa didn’t feel like baking biscuits, but she thought maybe this was part of the job. So she located the cocoa-splattered Edmonds Cookbook on a dusty shelf full of instruction manuals and half-opened bills, got Mercedes to measure out the dry ingredients and allowed Porsche to push the microwave buttons to melt butter. The butter exploded so Moeroa located the Janola and cleaned the crusty microwave. It needed a wipe out anyway. No drama.
Harlee helped by sneezing into the mixture.
Still, you couldn’t detect contamination when the gingernuts came out of the oven. The Ogden house smelled of spices now. The three girls crunched on biscuits and perched around Moeroa on the couch as she read three, then five, then seven expired library books, then the first three chapters of a yellowing Roald Dahl paperback.
When Moeroa’s voice began to croak she noticed it was past eight o’clock. Bedtime. She eventually got their teeth brushed, pyjamas buttoned down, each girl tucked firmly into her own bed. She said a hard no to extra lullabies.
Moeroa had three little half-siblings of her own, so chaos didn’t ruffle her. But Mercedes, Porsche and Harlee Ogden were next level. They might have eaten too much sugar as well.
When their giggling subsided, Moeroa wiped a “toothpaste bomb” off the bathroom mirror, did the dishes downstairs, stoked the fire (which had almost died), considered eating one of the gingernuts, remembered the rank sneeze and decided not to. In a theatrical swan song she back-flopped onto the couch.
Moeroa had been acting a part. In this suburban play she starred as the mum of three girls, living in her very own house. Her place would be a bit tidier than this. Now the game had grown stale. In a single yawn she was gripped by the desire to mooch the thirty metres back home, to crawl into her own bottom bunk and nod off reading the book about talking cats. Damn. She should’ve brung it with her, except you’re not meant to read novels when you’re working, right? Now there was nothing to do but wait for the olds to come home. She yawned again at the ceiling.
That’s when the phone rang the first time.
The sound was alarming. Phones on the wall always screamed ‘emergency’. Moeroa had learned to associate their urgent call with her brother’s B-grade horror movies. Now she realised how a ‘bringg!’ could sound especially dire on a dark, cold night in a creaky-ass house like this.
Moeroa steadied her breathing then answered casually.
“Hello, Ogden residence.”
“Oh hi, Cathy.”
Thank goodness it was only Cathy.
“Moeroa! Moeroa? Is that you, sweetheart?”
Cathy was yelling over top of some country and Western band. Music for background or not, she always yelled into phones though. “Did you get them three troublemakers tucked in tight?”
“Yeah, they’re asleep.”
Moeroa decided not to launch into how Mercedes didn’t make it to the toilet. She’d mopped it all up, so no more needed to be said.
“We might be a wee bit late. I’ve already called your mum. She said that’s fine with her.”
“We’ll be home around midnight.”
After Moeroa hung up she tried to deduce the time. This wasn’t easy because the microwave clock was an hour later than the wall clock.
So, 9:30 or 8:30. She hoped it was 9:30. Her own phone might tell her.
Before she could retrieve it, the Ogdens’ wall-phone rung out again.
Moeroa considered letting it go. It was probably Cathy a second time, telling Moeroa she might as well pull out the trundle bed because they’d be out line dancing the entire night. Then again, there could be an emergency.
“Hello, Ogden residence.”
Nothing. Not even the background clatter and clang of the Working Men’s Club.
“Hello?” she said again. “Cathy?”
“Have you checked on the children?”
Ray was always pulling pranks. One time he got a hold of some lemons that looked like oranges and told Moeroa to bite one.
“Have you checked on the children?” the voice repeated.
Definitely wasn’t Ray. The voice was too young and Ray didn’t pull these kinds of tricks. He wouldn’t have seen this movie anyways. He only watched stuff about Vietnam and Hitler.
“Dat you Kahu, you stupid dick?”
The voice didn’t sound like her brother either, though. Kahu must have done something to disguise it. Maybe he downloaded one of them voice changer apps.
Left alone, holding Cathy’s phone, Moeroa half expected to hear the ominous build-up of horror music coming out of the walls. But she only heard breeze through the trees out back.
She’d already closed all the drapes. Still, she did another lap of the living room, readjusted the fall of the fabric. She got rid of peek-sized gaps.
Who else had seen that film about the babysitter? Everyone, probably. It was a remake, based on a well-known urban legend. If that stuff really happened it happened ages ago, somewhere in America, not in a small-to-medium sized town in the South Island of New Zealand.
She checked the street before overlapping the drapes. No black vans had pulled up outside, as if they would. But there was no reassuring rectangle of light from her own kitchen, either. Mum and Grahame must’ve gone to bed already, leaving her totally alone in the world.
Moeroa had absorbed the pop culture narrative that good babysitters frequently check on their charges, even if mums don’t hardly ever themselves, unless the kids are actually crying. So she climbed the stairs, bent to pick up a sock on the landing, then looked in on each of the three girls. Mercedes breathed heavily from her cupboard-sized nook. Porsche and Harlee slept in the bigger bedroom with a view over the Ogden Trash Pile, as Moeroa’s step-dad named it. Ray Ogden never finished what he started. Right now it was too dark to see his quarter-bricked BBQ area, or the spa bath he got from the tip with half the plumbing wrecked on it. Moeroa scoped out what she could under a clear, half-moon sky. Someone could easily hide down there, camouflaged by all that junk. She detected no movement, except for maybe a cat.
Four-year-old Harlee had shucked off her blankets. Moeroa tucked her back in.
The phone screamed out again.
This time she stifled a scream.
Okay. Fine. She wouldn’t have to talk into it. She’d only have to stop it ringing. The girls were stirring in their sleep. For a surprised, half-asleep moment, Porsche opened her eyes.
“It’s okay,” whispered Moeroa. “Someone’s pranking me.” Porsche seemed to get the point. She rolled over to face the wall.
Moeroa could not stand the urgency of the ringing. She padded down the stairs and knocked the thing from its cradle. The handset dangled on a rubbery strangulation of coiled cord. Donk, donk, donk, it knocked, like someone wedged into the wall cavity behind, trying to break through the plasterboard.
Breaking the lonely silence, Moeroa heard a voice.
“Did you check on the children?”
She grabbed at the handset and clutched it far from her face. “Straight up, what do you even want?”
“I want your blood, all over me.”
“I know it’s you, Kahu, or one of his dumbass mates. I’m telling Mum as well.”
“Charleen is dead.”
“Ha haaa. That movie accent is fake as.”
Moeroa left the receiver dangling. She knew it was her brother. It must be. She hadn’t told anyone else she’d even be here tonight, apart from her best friends Sef and Lili who didn’t go in for pranks. They were more into friendship bracelets. The three of them did clapping games at lunchtime and made their own lipstick out of cornstarch, hinu and crayons. It was Sefina’s birthday next week. After getting paid tonight, Moeroa planned to buy her some new Crayolas for the lipstick recipe, since they used all the pink and red ones up.
At least with that phone dangling, the bastards couldn’t ring back.
Moeroa sat at the bottom of the stairs. She pulled her cuffs down over her wrists and flexed her toes inside chunky socks. These were her favourite cosy socks. Normally they made her feel good, but their cosy-power wasn’t working right now.
Maybe she should put her shoes back on. She wasn’t sure how this was a plan. But she went to the front door anyway and slipped back into her canvas flats. Then she reached into her jacket pocket. The jacket looked bigger than it really was, hung on top of others in the entrance hall, like someone much bigger than her was meant to fill it. Like someone was hiding under the coats. Oh my life, someone could be hiding anywhere in this place. Junk in every corner.
Inside her pocket, the cold touch of cellphone offered instant comfort, but of course the battery had carked it. She’d inherited this crap one from her step-dad.
She didn’t know where to sit down, or how to sit down. She felt like Goldilocks, restless inside a cosy house that can never be truly cosy no matter what you do in it, because it isn’t really yours. She could sit in Ray’s comfy big rocker but it smelt like sweat and grass clippings. Cathy’s recliner didn’t rock, and didn’t stink, but over the years Cathy’s butt had hollowed out a nook that belonged to Cathy alone.
So Moeroa perched on the edge of the couch.
Moeroa hadn’t figured out the TV because Ray had some complicated set-up with five remotes plus rip-off Sky. The channels didn’t match the numbers and most aired static.
So her eyes kept returning to that wall of family photos. Some of the cheesy Ogden pictures had faded over time. One professional portrait had been taken back in the nineties. The whole Ogden family wore matching light-blue shirts. The boys wore their reddish brown hair in bowl cuts. More recent photos had been printed out on an inkjet printer, clearly running out of cyan. The middle son of these pictures looked nothing like the dark figure Moeroa had seen occasionally, announcing his comings and goings with a noisy Harlee. Whatever his name was, the Ogden Problem Child was a big, tatted up gangster these days, with a greasy tight bun. He probably wouldn’t want the likes of Moeroa sniggering at his 90s bowl cut. If he was here now he’d yank her by the neck, push her against the wall…
Then she had a worse thought. Maybe it was him calling on the phone. You never know, Cathy could’ve mentioned to her criminal son she was leaving his three precious girls with the thirteen-year-old kid from across the road. He could be ringing from the cells maybe, or what if he even busted out. He could be inside the house right now. For all Moeroa knew, he could’ve done a murder or three. Maybe drugs had nothing to do with anything. Cathy never said what he done to get himself locked up. She only said he was “a very silly boy” who got “mixed up with the wrong company”.
What if the Ogden son was the wrong company? Someone had to be The Wrong Company.
The thought sent a shiver right through her. She decided to go upstairs and stay there. She would get into bed with four-year-old Harlee, who didn’t take up much space on the mattress.
First, she turned on every single one of the downstairs lights. Prowlers don’t appreciate lights. If they turned back off, at least she’d hear the clicks.
Once again she ascended the stairs. This is how she always felt after watching Police Ten 7 on dark wintry nights. Jumpy. That’s probably why she was hearing things. Sounded like someone had got out of bed. They were rummaging around in the wardrobe. Damn, the phone must have woken one of the monkeys. Harlee better not be pulling junk out of that toy box again.
But Harlee was sound asleep. So was Porsche. So was Mercedes, even. The bedroom was real cold. Ghost-cold. Then she felt the breeze, coming in through the open window.
“Hell, no,” she muttered. That window had definitely been shut before. She glanced in fear at the wardrobe. It felt like someone was hiding in there. Couldn’t be, though. She’d seen inside of that wardrobe and it was chockas full of mess and crap.
She couldn’t hardly move from the spot. If she kept not breathing like this she’d probably keel over inside of a minute. Even her ears were ringing.
From under Harlee’s bed came a rustling noise of shifting junk.
Moeroa stifled a shriek. She darted out of the room.
The phone dangled right where she left it, no longer knocking against the wall.
With trembling fingers she dialled 111. It didn’t go through at first. She pressed the switchhook a few times, tried again.
“You have dialled 111 emergency. Your call is being connected.”
Come on, hurry! It never took this long in the movies.
Finally a connecting click. “Operator here, what service please?”
“There’s someone in the house!”
“111 emergency, do you require fire, ambulance or police?”
“I dunno! All of them!”
“Is anybody injured?”
“I don’t think so?” Moeroa’s whisper shouts barely escaped her throat. She hadn’t checked Harlee for vital signs.
“Connecting you to police now. Please stay on the line.”
A different voice, maybe.
“Where are you now, please?”
“Across the road at my neighbours’ house!”
A brief pause. The longest in Moeroa’s life.
“Are you calling from 31 Sylvo Str—”
“Yeah, and there’s someone upstairs, inside the house! I’m here on my own, babysitting. Please, can someone come quick? He might be an escaped convict, I think.”
“Does he have weapons?”
“I bet he does! Maybe!”
“A car is on its way. Please stay with me. What does he look like?”
“I haven’t actually seen him, but I can hear him. Big footsteps. I think there’s more than one!”
“You’re calling because you hear footsteps upstairs?”
“Yeah! Heavy man-sized ones! All thumpy and that. Oh my god—”
“And what else is happening?”
“Ain’t that enough, though!”
“And what’s your name?”
“How old are you, Moeroa?”
“Thirteen, tell them to hurry up!”
Damn, she should’ve said “thirty”. They might believe her if she said “thirty”.
“Actually, I’m thirty. I meant thirty.”
“Okaay. Is there a responsible adult in the house there with you, Moeroa?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘responsible!’ Would you call them ‘responsible’ who broke in upstairs through a window to kill people? Three little kids are up there too. Oh my god, oh my god, I think they might be murderers or kidnappers!”
“Any signs of a break in?”
“The window’s open and I heard a noise outside as well!”
Oh hell no, that did not come out of the phone. It came from the top of the stairs.
Moeroa emitted a horror movie scream.
Another little voice receded back into the phone. Moeroa was in no mind to hear it.
Anyway, Kahu was laughing his head off. “Awww, I so wish I recorded that! She fully called the cops on us, bro!”
A second or two elapsed. She thought of all the insults under the sun. None made it out of her mouth.
“Sorry,” she said instead, quietly into the handset.
“Is this a genuine emergency?” said the tinny little voice.
Moeroa felt the heat rise in her face. Everything she’d said in the last two minutes sounded ridiculous now, even to herself. Her melodramatic script would surely come back to haunt her.
“Yeah. Sorry. It’s a prank. I’m so sorry.”
Full of shame, she replaced the headset onto its cradle. She sat on the bottom stair, back to her brother, then curled into herself. She hugged her knees tight, hoping to shrink. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”
Kahu had spoken to someone behind him. Kahu’s dickhead mate Ashton Hurst, no surprise.
“Hey, Moeroa! You should make the cops come round still. That’d be crack up!”
“That scream, man.” Kahu lowered his voice but kept up with the sniggers. “She fully freaked out!”
Those two loose units swagger-hopped down the stairs. Kahu’s annoying skux friend slapped Moeroa on the forearm as he passed.
Moeroa wiped sneaky tears onto her sleeve and raised her face to the light. “Hoihoi! You gonna wake up the girls!”
“Aw, for shame. I didn’t know you were gonna call emergency, sis. We were waiting for you to stand by the bed so we could grab your ankles. Like on that crap movie we watched.”
“I really, really hate yous right now.”
“You said that movie wasn’t even scary though, eh. Did you change your mind now?”
“Not even. How did yous get in?”
“Parkoured up that pile a junk.” Ashton flexed his skinny guns. “Got in through a upstairs window. I’m hungers as. Do I smell biscuits? Yahtzee!”
“You aren’t stealing my biscuits. Those are mine, I made them.”
“Not steal. Jus borrow and never give back.”
After the boys left, Moeroa surveyed a dusty bookshelf, selected a Danielle Steele and fell asleep on the couch. Everything felt safe now. Humiliating, but safe.
Cathy and Ray Ogden arrived home at either 11:30 or 12:30.
She wasn’t even startled.
“Yoo hoo! Wakey wakey, Sleeping Beauty!”
Cathy was shaking her shoulder. Moeroa blinked hard, sat up and rubbed her eyes with the heel of one hand.
“Why are all these lights on, love? Electricity costs a bomb these days. You’ll know when you grow up and start paying bills. Doesn’t matter, Ray’ll walk you home. Don’t forget to take your bikkies.”
Cathy pushed the Tupperware at her.
It was only after flopping into her own bottom bunk that Moeroa understood she’d accepted crumbs as payment.
“Where’d this empty container come from?” her mother asked, next day after breakfast. But she already knew the answer. “You better take it back.”
“Cathy didn’t pay me for last night, by the way.” Moeroa hoped to gauge her mother’s reaction.
That was noncommittal.
“Cathy gets by on the smell of an oily rag. She deals with a lot, with all them grandkids and that troublemaker son. She doesn’t get to kick back in her retirement like most people. It was real nice of you though, e kō. I know she appreciates it, even if she doesn’t exactly say it in words.”
Moeroa didn’t take the Tupperware back. She went outside with it, thought about crossing the road, then chucked it into the recycling bin.
Two weeks later, Cathy came over for a cup of coffee and a smoke with Charleen and hadn’t forgotten about the Tupperware.
“Where is it, e kō? Didn’t you take it straight back over like I told you?”
Moeroa shrugged and acted dumb.
“What’s got into you?” Charleen turned to Cathy. “This one’s vacant lately. Growing pains. Mainly painful for mama, though.”
“Where’s my damn money?” Moeroa thought, but didn’t say.
“Speaking of growing, where’s that hulk of a son? Ray wants Kahu’s help to clean up the yard. Finally! Reckons he’ll build me my vege garden after all these years, in time for my big six-oh.”
“I hope he takes you out as well, Cath. It’s a milestone birthday.”
“I’m working on that.”
Moeroa felt a bit stink.
She felt a bit stink until Kahu came home waving a twenty dollar note. Ray gave it to him for a single morning’s work.
“How come you got paid, fucker?”
“Let’s have a peaceful dinner,” said Grahame. “Kahu worked hard today, shifting all that junk. Looks great over there. My eyes feel relieved for the first time in years.”
“I also did the whipper snipping and mowed the front lawn,” Kahu added. “Heavy work.”
“Babysitting ain’t exactly a walk in the park.”
“Boosh. Got any brains you just shove them into bed and watch the TV.”
“There’s a bit more to it than that, son.”
At least their mum was backing her up.
“Take a lesson from your big brother,” advised Grahame, reaching for the sliced beetroot. “Babysitting, gardening work, stuff like that is a bartering economy. Want to get paid the going rate? Name your price up front.”
Moeroa looked at Kahu. “Did you name your price up front, bro?”
“I was there the entire morning, as a favour. Twenty bucks still don’t make minimum wage. Ray must’ve thought I deserved some compensation though. Cos I did a excellent job.”
“Did you use Grahame’s whipper snipper, though?”
Grahame raised his eyebrows.
Moeroa had witnessed Kahu taking it out of the garage. He walked across the road with Grahame’s petrol can, whipper snipper and a spare spool of cord as well. Not to mention a whole lot of snacks from the pantry. And an entire thing of milk.
Moeroa swallowed a mouthful of dry hamburger bun. “Speaking of ‘economy’, aren’t you gonna reimburse Grahame for the use of his tools, bro?”
“Don’t start down that track,” Grahame cautioned. “I’ve always treated you kids as my own. If I made a fuss every time you wasted my stuff I’d send myself into an early grave.”
Moeroa wasn’t hungry. She didn’t excuse herself.
“What’s got into her?” she heard as she padded down the hallway.
A week after that, Moeroa walked Cathy’s girls as well as her own little brothers and sister home from school, opened her own front door and smelt Cathy’s menthols. She wondered if Cathy was here again to talk about Tupperware. So she quietly busied herself in the kitchen, preparing the kids their snack.
Charleen called from out back.
“Moeroa West, is that you? Haere mai!”
“I’m just getting the kids their cheese and crackers.”
“Come here now. I’m not gonna hit you but I will chase you down.”
Maybe her mum’d found the Tupperware. The bin man would’ve come this morning. Her mother might’ve opened the lid and seen it sitting there, right on top.
But when Moeroa joined her mother and Cathy on the patio, it wasn’t Tupperware sitting centerstage on the crate between them. It was a bit of paper. Looked official.
Cathy regarded Moeroa suspiciously and took a long drag on her smoke.
“What’s all this?” Her mother passed Moeroa the sheet of paper. It was a phone bill. “Someone made a 111 call from Cathy’s.”
Naturally, Moeroa hadn’t mentioned any of that. She’d felt kind of stupid for failing to recognise Ashton’s disguised voice. She felt even more stupid for screaming. She felt stupidest of all for calling emergency services, which might’ve stopped someone in a real emergency from getting urgent help. That last part didn’t bear thinking about. So she hadn’t thought about it, on purpose.
“Were you messing about for fun?” Cathy asked. “Because they charge for non emergencies, you know. They want six dollars for that.”
Charleen’s face wasn’t as angry as her voice. She rubbed Moeroa’s lower back. “Hei aha. Just tell us what gave you a scare.”
Moeroa disappointed herself by bursting into tears. “It was Kahu and Ashton. They got in the house and pranked me half to death.”
Then she was required to tell the entire story, twice, because Cathy couldn’t follow.
Charleen shook her head like she was disappointed in her eldest son. But still it was Moeroa who had done something wrong. “If you got scared for any reason, why didn’t you call me? I was right across the road, for back up. Like we said.”
Moeroa kept crying, trying to stifle it.
“For crying out loud,” Cathy said eventually. “What a hoo ha over nothing. Well, boys will be boys.” She took a slurp of coffee. Then her brow furrowed again. “Moeroa, didn’t you lock up the house all safe and sound like I told you? How did them two troublemakers get in through a window? Did you leave it open in the middle of winter? I had the fire stoked up and everything.”
But Moeroa was crying angry tears now, and had her face pressed into her mother’s collar bone.
“Aw, no need to get upset,” Cathy said in a softer voice. “Six bucks won’t break the bank. You can make it up to me next week. It’s school holidays, right? Ray’s turned around and said he’ll take me out to the Casino for my birthday lunch. I’ll be needing a responsible girl like you to keep an eye on the monkeys. They had so much fun with you last time, sweetheart. They won’t stop talking about their new best friend.”
Moeroa lifted her face from her mother’s soft neck. In the pause, Moeroa hoped her mother would say something to Cathy about money for babysitting, not just money for non-emergency calls that weren’t even her fault. But she didn’t.
Moeroa wiped her cheeks with her sleeve. Mascara darkened her cuff. “I’ll think about it.”
“Good, well I’ll let you know what day. Tuesday’s cheap day for seniors. So I guess we going on the Tuesday with all the proper old-olds.”
“If Ray can afford to take you out to the Casino, he can pay the babysitter as well, though.”
When Cathy shot her a surprised look, Moeroa realised she’d said that out loud.
“Girrrl,” her mother cautioned.
Cathy leaned forward in the fold-up chair, picked up her cigarettes and tapped another from the box. She didn’t light up but it dangled on her lips, stuck there for now with gluey saliva.
“Drives a hard bargain, your baby girl.”
“Twenty bucks for half a day,” Moeroa added quietly. “Or a evening. That’s still mates’ rates.”
“Twenty bucks? Oh, I see where it’s come from now.” Cathy did light her cigarette. “Here’s the thing, sweetheart. We women have always been expected to do childcare. It’s not what we do, you see. It’s who we are.”
“And that’s fine with you?”
“If I don’t look after those poor wee girls who else is going to do it? It wasn’t me who abandoned them kiddies, but I love them and I do what’s right, every single day. Life’s not fair, young lady. You’ll find that out soon enough.” Cathy nodded conspiratorially at her mother. “Charleen knows what I mean.”
Moeroa had simmered long and hard on this very point. Her argument was fit to burst. “What’s more important to you, though? The yard or your grandkids?”
“Don’t talk rubbish. Anyway, I paid you in biscuits.”
“I can’t buy stuff with biscuits, though. And everyone else eats them.”
“That was heavy work your brother done. I doubt you could manage it, a scrawny wee thing like you. I know I can’t. Even Ray’s getting past it himself.”
“Would you trust Kahu or any of his mates to babysit your grand-daughters, though?”
“See, girls mature faster—”
“Because him and his mate Ashton thought it was a laugh to climb up on Ray’s wobbling trash heap, snap off part of your trellis, jimmy open a window and scare the babysitter for fun. If you’re gonna pay my brother for his manly muscles, you better cough up for my girly maturity.”
Cathy said nothing for a while. Then finally she did.
“I wish I was rich, Moeroa. But you know we can’t afford to pay a babysitter as well as a nice day out for my birthday.”
Cathy left peaceably enough, but Moeroa knew to expect a lecture from her mum.
There was no lecture. Just, “Auē! You are turning into one strong wāhine.”
Moeroa felt relieved but also guilty. She might’ve ruined Cathy’s entire sixtieth. She mooched off to her room.
But she returned to the outside table with A4 paper and marker pens. She needed to sit next to her mother, to be sure there were no negative vibes. She set about making her poster for the petrol station pin board.
Local babysitting service.
Reliable, responsible, $15/hr.
Reference available upon request.
She hesitated before writing more.
“Do you reckon Cathy’ll recommend me though, Mum? Should I put that bit about the reference?”
“She’ll probably say you’re reliable, responsible and don’t come cheap.”
Moeroa grinned. That was actually perfect.