Three Women

Three Women

A melodic buzz followed by repeated rolling and rumbling on Linda’s computer interrupts her. A flashing photograph of her sister replaces her word document when she hits the skype icon. The photograph shows her sister Christie in an open plan office wearing head-phones. The light shines off her straightened blonde hair and a shining oyster shell on a bead necklace sits at her throat above her square-necked mauve top.

Seeing Christie’s smiling face does not fill Linda with delighted joy. Quite the opposite in fact. She feels prickly, impatient and cross. Politeness at the very least should make her tap the telephone shaped receiver icon and open the communication channel. But she hesitates. She wants to talk to her younger sister but it has been some weeks and the last time they spoke, the words were terse.   

With an effort she wipes the troubling memory of their last bitter exchange from her features and presses the green icon. While she waits she composes herself by looking out of the window at the acacia tree in the neighbouring property.  A flock of graceful red and emerald lorikeets fly in, land on the wind trembling branches and start cracking seed pods with their hooked beaks.  Seed shards spray past their red throats and they fly to the ground where they peck at the seeds.

‘Hi sis,’ Christie’s voice chirps with forced alacrity.

The frozen in time photograph morphs into her real time beaming sister in a light summer top and wearing no make-up or jewellery.

Her voice strains under the effort of trying to appear light-hearted and upbeat. Uncertainty plagues the smile.

Linda is also anxious and uncertain. There is nothing carefree about their relationship as they stare at one another.  She wishes it were not so. She takes in her own reflection on the computer screen, pale, insubstantial and ethereal. But behind the eyes lies a forcefulness that cannot be found in her sister’s eyes.

Christie tilts her head to one side; her eyes hold a question.

Linda decides to treat this call as a tenuous new beginning.

‘How is Australia?’ she asks.

A wide appreciative smile fills Christie’s ingenuous features.

‘Great….loving my job.’

‘I’m glad,’ Linda says.

She presses closer to the screen. Christie draws back.

Outside, the scrapping Lorikeets peck and claw at one another, wings flying and flapping.  Then, as if given an invisible signal they fly away, wings touching wings like an intricate patchwork quilt.

Linda frowns, perplexed.

‘Christie, did you call for a reason?‘

The sound of someone moving around behind Christie disturbs Linda. Peter.

‘There’s bread in the fridge, babe,’ Christie calls off camera. She looks back at her sister. ‘He’s really good….looks after me….’

They both know Linda will never accept what Christie says. In her mind Peter ensnared Christie by filling her with dreams.

The fridge door hisses open, a plastic bag gives a discordant rustle as Peter takes the bread out and the slams the door shut. The toaster clicks like someone’s judgmental tongue.

’You can make me a slice too,’ Christie calls to Peter.

‘Sure babe,’ he calls back cheerfully. ‘Say hi to your sister!’

Linda winces as if he has just slapped her on the face. Christie turns back to the screen, her round face beaming. ‘I guess you heard that,’ she says.

Linda nods. The tension across her shoulders is making her head ache.

Seeing how tense Linda is makes Christie frown and she grumpily shrugs.

‘Oh look, if you’re going to be like that…..’ 

Her chubby finger hovers over the mouse and Linda waits for her sister to disappear. She doesn’t. She stays. 

Their gaze meets then they look away. Linda takes a long deep breath but then she catches the rising words. Christie’s voice crosses the void, a steady voice covering insecurity and hesitation.

‘We’re going for a bike ride up the coast to Currimbin Bird Sanctuary….’

‘Great,’ and Linda imagines her on the back of Peter’s Harley Davidson in her leathers and their matching helmets.

‘What would be even greater is if you came over here and sorted your daughter out.’

Christie heaves an impatient sigh. ‘If I thought it would work I would.’ Her head tilts to one side. ‘But she might listen to you.’

Linda shakes her head as she recalls the last time she visited Rebecca.

-------

 

Three weeks ago.

She knocks and on getting no answer goes inside and up to Rebecca’s room. It is 11 o’clock on Saturday morning and Rebecca is on her bed casting the first lines of a sketch. Her eyes roll in her head and Linda instantly recognises the signs of someone on methamphetamine. The shock of seeing her niece picking at her skin, and hearing her incomprehensible mumbling catapults her into her school headmistress persona - officious and methodical.

‘Where’s Kate?’

With a shaking hand Rebecca points to the room next door.

‘In there, I think.’ A manic giggle follows the words.

Numb, Linda leaves the room and gives the door to Kate’s room a tentative knock, opens the door and peeps around the corner. Thirteen year old Kate is in bed with a blanket over her head.

Holding herself together with tightly bound muscles Linda draws the blankets back. Kate is holding her eyes stubbornly closed with pulsing lids.

‘Are you all right?’ Linda asks.

Kate’s eyes flicker open and their almost black pupils look back at her. Kate nods and closes her eyes again.  An auburn curl tumbles across her high forehead, her black lashes fan out over her cheeks and a tiny smile tugs at the edges of her mouth before she wriggles and pulls the blankets back over her head.     

Linda rests a hand on the moulded shape of Kate’s body, folds her black half-length jacket around herself and stands. The atmosphere in the house is stultifying. Robotic, she goes down to the kitchen and looks out at the single storey, weatherboard state house next door. A net curtain flaps in her face. She catches it and shoves it into the tie that is meant to hold it. The house is incredibly tidy, almost clinically clean.

A cleaning cloth lies bunched at the base of glass cleaner on the corner of the table top and a vacuum cleaner sits in the middle of the floor like a hydra with its cords coiling out from its round silver belly.

Taking a deep breath she goes to the cupboards and opens them. No food. She opens the refrigerator. A bottle of tomato sauce sits on the middle shelf with nothing else.

Immediately decisive she strides up to Kate’s room and sits on the edge of the bed.

There is a small television set on a painted pink dresser, clothes scattered over a chair and a picture of a smiling Justin Bieber on the wall. The string of beads draped around Kate’s mirror reminds Linda of a nun’s rosary beads, of whispered ‘Hail Mary’s’.  But the room disturbs Linda. It lacks the carefree jumble she associates with the young people she teaches every day.

‘What did you eat this morning?’ she asks the mummy-like shape in the bed.

There is no response. Linda lifts the blanket. Kate’s eyes flicker open.

‘Stuff….’  She mumbles.

Her bottom lip, curls down towards her chin.

She turns to face the wall, eyes closed, not moving.

With a disconcerting shock she realises she hardly knows Kate…that despite all the family gatherings she has presided over she has hardly spoken to Kate except to ask how she is. Christie was always hovering nearby. Linda had accepted that she was the sister who organised gatherings and Christie the sister their kids went to with their troubles.

‘What stuff?’ Linda demands, now a schoolteacher, not an aunt.

Kate mutters, ‘noodles’.

‘When?’

‘Last night… with my mates.’ Kate’s voice lifts defensively.

Linda throws the blankets off Kate. She lies still in a tee shirt and panties.

‘Right you. Get dressed.’

Kate drags herself out of bed and lethargically pulls on a sweatshirt and jeans.

-------

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Linda and Kate

The mall is buzzing with Saturday shoppers; at times deafening as people laugh and shout at each other. Young people shove and push each other, screaming loud pitched cries of ‘don’t’ and ‘show me that’ as they roam in groups from shop to shop. Mothers chase scurrying children and fathers talk to other fathers in electronic stores. Couples, their arms hooked around each other’s waists, gaze in jewellers’ shop windows pointing at rings.

A group of young girls spill out of JayJays, boisterously nudging one another. One holds a top against herself and the others stand back admiring her purchase. Kate watches them, despondent. I put my arm around her thin shoulders and say, ’why don’t we go and check it out.’

Her face lights up with a dazzling smile. Then it is snuffed out by a dark frown. Her legs twine around each other, shoulders collapse and her hands sink into the back pockets of her jeans.

She gazes at a huge pile of clothes on a table by JayJay’s front door. They look as though someone has grabbed a bundle and flung them high up in the air and let them settle wherever they fell then walked away. 

I push her ahead of me by the shoulders. ‘Let’s see what specials we can drag out of that wild pile.’

I chuckle and tiny smile catches at her mouth.

I pick up a red and purple diaphanous top with a butterfly on the front and hold it against her. She gazes on the flowing top.

‘You want to try it on?’ I ask.

She nods timidly. I gesture toward the changing room and with shuffling feet she goes where I direct. When she comes out she is wearing it and running her finger along the lines of the butterfly. She looks at me then back at it with longing eyes.

‘I think we’ll get that,’ I tell her.

Her excited face sparkles and I want to buy the entire cluttered table and give it to her.

With our arms linked we stroll across to the Food Court. We stand on the boundary and I ask her what she would like. Expecting her to say McDonalds I am surprised when she points to the Indian stall.

I pull twenty dollars out of my purse and give it to her.

‘You go and buy whatever you want.’

She takes the money gingerly. I give her a gentle push.

‘Go on. You get what you want.’

She makes her way over to the crowd gathered around the Indian food stall and seems to get swallowed up. I think a tiny breeze could sweep her away. I buy a sandwich and sit down. Once I am seated I try to find her and catch glimpses of her as people shuffle about. Eventually she emerges holding her red tray aloft,

‘What have you got there?’ I ask.

‘Butter chicken, my favourite.’

The delicious smell drifts over me and I regret choosing the very boring tuna sandwich I hold. With a faint clink she puts my change on the table. It rasps as I push it back to her.

‘You keep it and buy another butter chicken another day.’

Her pixie face lights up joyfully. She is quite beautiful, a young girl at the dawn of becoming a woman.

As we drive back to her place a troubled silence settles over us. She sighs as she looks out of the window at the familiar houses taking her closer to her own. Another sigh that reminds me of an old woman heaves out of her. I reach across and touch her shoulder.  It has slumped again.

The tyres grate on the gravel as we stop in her driveway. With a click I open the door and the wind sends a shivering blast into the car. I get out and go to her side. She slowly gets out of the car.

‘Let’s keep in touch with Facebook?’ I suggest.

The glumness shifts. ‘That’d be good.’

We hug and grief grips me as I get back into the car. I watch her walk up to her house, a tiny figure that closes in on itself with each step that takes her closer to the glass plated door. She opens the door, shoots me a glance then goes inside.

With heavy heart I start my car. As I drive away I try to think what I could do to help her and come up with no answers.

Every day I post a carefully crafted message asking how she is on her Facebook page. It sits like a foreigner amongst the  ‘yaar naaw yhus, okay no algoods, tbh, :L :L, iLIKe how….’ messages from her friends. I am always relieved when she posts a reply telling me she is ‘way kul’.

When the messages stop coming I become concerned.

I call Christie who assures me Rebecca and Kate are, ‘fine’. She spoke to them the night before.

But the uneasiness will not leave me so at the risk of being cast as an interfering old biddy and call Brendan, Rebecca’s Dad and Christie’s former husband.

‘Funny you should ring,’ he said. ‘I talked to her last night and Rebecca made no sense at all. She was on another planet.’

He laughs but I can tell he is worried.

We agree to meet outside Rebecca’s in the weekend. Just before hanging up he says, ‘Things don’t sound good. I think I’ll pick Kate up and bring her back home to be with Anna and me.’ Anna is his new partner.

 

-------

 

 

 

Rebecca

Dad must have knocked softly because I didn’t hear him. I heard only the wind, spawned by Tawhirimātea catching the curtain cord, tapping at the window before sucking in his breath and heaving it out in huge gusts that bang doors and sends rubbish bins scudding across footpaths.

I am creating this amazing scene I can see in my mind - a woman whose hair flies around her, down to her feet in a maze of vines wrapping themselves around her. In the background I see motifs symbolising new life, hope, strength, prosperity and good luck; the Muri Paraoa , Hei Matau and the koru. I place a Manaia  at my woman’s heart. I put it there to guide her through life and to care for her spirit until she dies. The Manaia draws life from the spirit world, beating with her every breath, pulsing with light. Her eyes are like the stars, Mata Ariki shining in the celestial sky and her face is Mutuwhenua, the moon in shadow. Behind her, trees belonging to Tane Mahuta, stretch their branches to Ranginui, the Sky Father. Her hair spirals away from her, curling around the trees and creeping along the ground. Tawhirimātea buffets the vines, making them cling to the trees and making my woman clutch them to her to cover herself. Two spiralling vines reach up to Ranginui and form scudding clouds. Her long toes dig into Papatuanuku, Earth Mother and Rongo mā Tāne, the God of the Kumara grows his progeny beneath the soil. A river runs through the vines, rippling as eels glide to the surface and slide out along the vines. Tangaroa, the God of the sea, the lakes, rivers and all that dwell within embrace his children.

But then away in the distance Rūaumoko stirs beneath the surface and explodes into a raging outpouring of molten anger, spewing lava up into Ranginui, flowing down the sides of the mountain and swirling around the feet of my great female icon. Tūmatauenga, the God of War fills the vines with hatred. They become wild and angry, attacking and squeezing the life out of the small creatures.

I cry for Rongo to rest a hand upon these warring beings and bring about peace but he has been silenced by the greater power of Tūmatauenga. I sketch furiously, covering this thing that is destroying my beautiful world. I cover the faces of all the earth’s enemies, ugly people full of greed, selfishness and worst of all, unkindness. Tangaroa sends a raging sea washing through the land drowning the murderers and Rūaumoko sends earthquakes that make Papatuanuku crack and shudder with the greatest power imaginable.

Then I hear impatient banging. I cower beneath my pillow. Hine-nui-te-po has come for me. I cry for her mercy. A mist swirls around me, she is sucking me down into the underworld. I start to choke as my life drains from me. I jump from my bed, push through the fog and I run to the door. I fling it open and there is my father and Aunty Linda. My relief turns to grief as they pack Kate’s bag and take her away.

 

------

 

 

 

 

 

 

A week after Brendan and Linda’s visit to Rebecca’s.

The sun streams through Linda’s window and across the backs of her hands when the burp of skype sounds. It is Christie again. Steeling herself she picks up.

                                                                                                                                                           ‘Hello,’ she says.   

The cockatiels balance on the branches and crack seedpods. A cloud hovers in the sky and a blackbird lands feet first on a branch at the top of the tree. The branch bends under the new arrival’s weight. Undaunted, the cockatiels keep cracking the pods.

This time Christie is angry. ‘I asked you to help. I counted on you.’ She points an accusatory finger at Linda.

Vexation catches in Linda’s chest as she clicks her tongue.

‘I tried but she …’

‘Instead you took away the only reason Rebecca had for living.’ Disbelief lifts her voice. ‘How could you do that?’

Now Linda is angry.

‘Now you just hold on. I couldn’t leave a thirteen year old kid in that environment.’ Spit from Linda’s fury speckles the computer screen. ‘ Her mother made her choices. Her daughter didn’t.’

Christie’s dejected features fill the screen.

‘Well she’s gone now. It’s your fault.’

Christie hits the red telephone receiver icon and disappears. Linda stares at her reflection in the screen then at the fighting birds in the acacia, heart thudding.

The tree is alive with cackling birds. They reverberate through her head and set her body shaking. The screeching birds fly at the windows and hammer on the glass. They fly in a frenzied mass around the acacia.

Unable to stand the assault she leaves the house and goes for a walk beside the river. Leaning on the bridge she watches the water drifting past, the ducks flying through the mangroves and an eel slithering through the mud. For the first time ever she wonders what life is really all about.

On the bank there is a small bush. A monarch butterfly with gold and black wings lands on thin legs and hovers there, wings opening and closing. Through the blur of tears she imagines she sees her niece and all she might have been.

------

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christie

Pete was right. I did deserve to have a life. It’s not my fault that Rebecca decided to live the way she did. I gave her the best years of my life.

I was a confused teenager when I got pregnant at fifteen, terrified of what was ahead. I had Rebecca, married Brendan and soon after, had Tony. Brendan’s mother helped me and I loved Nana Rose for all she did. When she died something inside of me died too.

That was five years ago. Not long after that my own mother died with dementia. I nursed her for years, picking her up from the police after she tried to stop traffic and cleaning up after her.

Rebecca moved to a flat and Tony went to University in Wellington to study law. Brendan and I were left in the house, alone. He played Masters Tennis and I played social netball.

Then Tony moved to the Bay of Plenty to work for a legal firm there.

At his thirtieth birthday barbecue Tony took me aside and told me he thought Rebecca was using ‘P’. That set my heart thumping. I had heard it was a terrible drug and the thought of one of my kids using it terrified me. With my heart in my throat I went over to where Rebecca sat with a friend. As she lifted her arm to sweep some hair off her shoulder her sleeve fell away. I saw the black marks up her arms and I understood with stomach clutching terror what her ‘stress eczema’ really was. No mother wants to see her child using drugs.

I had to talk to her.

So I took her up to the bedroom and sat her on the bed. She had black rings under her sunken eyes. The signs were plain to see. God, it almost killed me.

I was clinging to a thin shred of hope when I asked her if she was on drugs. It took her a moment to register what I had asked. Then she leapt to her feet and started screaming at me, ‘How dare you accuse me of doing such a thing? What kind of mother are you that you would think that I use drugs?’

And I knew with choking certainty that her denial was empty.

Holding my hands up to protect myself from the onslaught I said, ‘Okay, I believe you.’

There was no point telling her I didn’t.

Feeling as if I had raised a monster and that I was the only mother in the world with a drug addict for a daughter, I picked up my failure, pasted a smile on my face and went back to the party.

Tony was in charge of the barbecue. He set the fire lighter against the gas and the flames flared. I stared at them while Brendan got drunk as he always did. The drunker Brendan got the more he hit on all the women but I barely noticed as I was used to it. They seemed to take it in good heart, laughing him off.

I really wasn’t in the mood for company when Peter came over and sat beside me.

‘Can I get you a beer?’ he asked.

I held up my empty glass. ‘I’m drinking Malibu and pineapple juice,’ I said.

I wasn’t hinting that he should get me a glass but he took it and returned with it full. I drank it quickly. I needed something. Laughing, he went off and got me another, and another.

As my head got lighter the horror I had witnessed earlier became less painful. When Peter suggestd we go or a walk Brendan was occupied with some woman in the rock garden.

When I stood I swayed into him and he put his arm around me. He steadied me. We went for a walk into the botanical gardens nearby and away from everyone all the ropes that had been holding me together unravelled. I burst into tears. He held me while I sobbed my heart out.

‘Sweetheart,’ he said. I marvelled at the sound of that word. He kept talking but I just wanted him to call me ‘sweetheart’ again. ‘It’s not your fault. Kids choose their own futures.’

It was such a relief to hear those words. We arranged to meet when I was in Rotorua with my netball team and we went back to the party. My bleak future had changed forever.

When I told her I was going to Australia with him, Linda drew herself up, pushed her short curly hair away from her face and said, ‘You can’t leave Rebecca and Kate.’

Tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t cope with what Rebecca was doing and I didn’t dare tell Linda that she had a drug addict for a niece. The shame was crushing me. I just told her I deserved to have a life.  Linda pursed her lips and said, ‘once a mother, always a mother.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but at some time Rebecca has to learn to stand on her own two feet without me forever propping her up.’

-----

Nine months later.

After the last call Christie never skypes Linda again and Linda does not feel she can call her sister. The chasm is impossible to cross. Now they have both failed there is nothing to talk about any more.

One day as she makes a cup of tea she gazes out of the window. The birds land on the acacia. Lorikeets fuss over seed pods, sparrows fight over bits of seed and a fantail flits between the leaves that shiver in the wind. She does not see any of this. She has not seen it for months.

The kettle bubbles, catching her attention and she pours the hot water over a tea bag. She is not even thirsty and once the cup of tea is sitting there with wisps of steam coming off it she sets it to one side without even sipping it. She wanders to the table where students homework lies open waiting to be marked and she starts trying to read an essay. A knock at the door is a welcome distraction although she cannot imagine who might be calling.

She opens the door expecting to see a neighbour. Instead a young woman stands before her, long dark hair coiling in shiny curls away from her face. She blinks. Can this really be the girl that occupies her mind so many hours of every day?

‘Hello Aunty,’ Rebecca says.

 Her voice is as clear as her eyes. Linda blinks again.

‘I thought you….’ Linda clutches her throat, the word stuck.

Rebecca’s laughter is unsullied.

‘I know.’ She pats Linda’s arm as she walks into the house. ‘I know,’ she says again.

‘No, you don’t know,’ Linda chokes holding her throat.

Linda grips her niece to her and inhales the glorious White Diamond perfume. She holds her away from her and Rebecca oscillates like an apparition.

Laughing, Rebecca steps away pointing at herself.

‘It is me, Aunty. I promise.’

Linda reaches out and touches Rebecca’s face. Her skin is smooth.

Rebecca laughs again.

‘Your mother….’ Linda says.

Rebecca rolls her eyes.

‘I had to get away.’

She goes over to the essays strewn about the table. ‘School work?’ she asks. Linda nods.

‘I’m at school too, training to be a drug counsellor.’

She strokes her pounamu manaia pendant with long manicured fingers.

Linda feels as if she is in a daze. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ she asks.

‘That’d be lovely,’ Rebecca says.

As Linda switches on the kettle all her troubles seem to slide away from her.

She turns to Rebecca. ‘I’ll make the tea and then we’ll skype your mother.’

‘Sure,’ Rebecca chirps.

She pours them both a cup and they lean against the bench top and look out at the acacia tree alive with birds, singing, cracking seed pods and hopping from one branch to the next. Sparrows hop through the leaves and a fantail flutters in and out of the light and shade. A fragile monarch butterfly hovers at the edge.

 

Comments

I'm reading this on my phone on the train. Almost at my stop. I can see this story going far. When I first started reading, I thought shorty story, but as read on I saw that it was only the start of a journey.i find it interesting interesting which is always a good start. The style of writing (the proper name escapes me) but when a writer types disturbs her rather than disturbed her, well, I guess it disturbs me. I find it hard to read. However, you have still done it well. 

Sorry for the extra words above and missing words, but when typing on my phone it won't let me correct anything. Might work better if I turn off rich text. I'll try it next time.