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Making herself at home

Pip Adam, 2015
a spoonful of sugar, reprinted 2021

Abigail was out walking because she was fat. She’d parked the car up on the curb beside some houses so half of it was off the road. It had looked like the type of place someone who went walking would park to go for a walk. There was bush, it was raining, a footpath, a long, long road. She wasn’t just fat, she reminded herself now, as she walked back to the car, feet soaking, every corner looking like the one just before the place she’d parked, she was broke and single as well. And old. So really, it had all been a waste of time. She’d walked too far away from the car and now hated the earlier version of herself who had decided to go for the walk — wished she’d killed her when she had the chance. It had rained the whole way. Slow rain more like a body of water. She’d tried to look up at the hills, to enjoy nature, but the rain slid off her hair and down the back of her neck and her thighs chaffed and she’d walked too far in one direction before turning back and now the walk back to the car was awful. Surely it was this corner. Graeme said he’d make sure she lost everything. When she went to the bank the day after she left to see why her cards weren’t working she realised what he meant. The woman behind the counter said there was nothing they could do without her husband’s authority. Graeme had reported Abigail’s cards stolen and he needed to authorise the issuing of any new cards — it was a joint account. She must have walked miles, maybe she’d missed the car? Maybe the car was gone? He’d earnt every cent of it he said on the phone as she stood in the bank and anything she’d earnt she forfeited the minute she slept with Richard. He needed it for child support — she’d never see the children again. The children needed one decent parent.

She told herself the story over and over again. Someone had told her once that people who watched enough horror films could watch all the horror films they wanted. She’d liked Poltergeist. They’re here.

She called Richard after Graeme hung up on her, after she was asked to leave the bank. She always thought she’d leave for a younger man but she’d left her run too late. The only men interested in a 45-year-old women were 65-year-old men. Richard said he’d done nothing to encourage her to leave Graeme — what was she thinking? She waited and waited for him to stop talking. Could she just have some money?

The hill was steep. She’d parked the car on a slope, she could have walked uphill to start off with but she’d taken the easy way out early. She’d started downhill and now it was all uphill the whole way back. That was her though. It had started as a run but as she parked the car she felt tired and almost just drove off. If she’d had anywhere to go she would have driven off. She was lucky to still have the car. He’d come for that next. That was probably what was at the bottom of the whole walking idea. The fact the car would soon be gone — or maybe it wouldn’t. Graeme said she was lucky to have the car. At the family court. That he was extremely generous to let her keep the car. The car was a brand new BMW X1. If she didn’t have any money maybe she could use the car to get a job delivering pizzas, he’d said. She was sure she saw her court-appointed lawyer nod in agreement with him. Abigail had been a policy analyst at the Ministry of Health before she had kids. She slept in the car sometimes. She’d asked a friend to put it on Trade Me and Graeme had found the listing and he’d rung WINZ.

Richard’s wife found out next — or Richard told her — and she threatened to take the kids back to Japan. What Abigail needed to understand (at a café this time — Richard bought her lunch which she tried to eat slowly) was that the extradition laws in Japan were hell. He couldn’t see Abigail again. It was a public place, he said looking round the busy café, so he hoped she’d have some dignity about the whole thing and not make a scene.

After he finished that last speech about extradition and children there was silence for a minute, during which need trumped pride one more time and Abigail asked if he was sure he couldn’t give her just a little bit of money. The bank had stopped taking her calls and when she went in the women at the counters would see her, step aside and make room for the men in suits from the offices behind the counters.

She was panting, the cold air scraped at the back of her throat, she tried to breathe through her nose but that stung too. Why didn’t she report his cards stolen? She could have. Abigail couldn’t take the kids anywhere. She had nowhere to go back to. The people she came from didn’t have a ‘take the kids back to’ place.

She’d been sleeping on people’s couches although news travelled pretty quick that she’d left Graeme and the children for a 65-year-old man with a 27-year-old wife and it didn’t take much for people to work out that they played squash with the 27 year old and that the 65 year old was their children’s school’s biggest donor. Her father, in his dramatic way, said she was dead to him. ‘I gave you away’, he said. Which she suspected meant he didn’t have to take her back. No returns. She couldn’t come crying to him. She’d made the mess.

She’d stayed on other people’s couches then, people she hadn’t seen for years, but the weekends were tricky. Everyone was home and they wanted to use their living rooms. He’d taken her laptop — it was a business asset. He’d cancelled her mobile plan and then she’d dropped the whole phone in a toilet. She was cut- off. The newspapers didn’t have jobs in them anymore. She hadn’t looked at Facebook for months. The world could have ended. People could have died. Finally she turned a corner and looked up and there it was. The car was an expensive and massive European car which made it very hard to ask for help, and he wouldn’t let her sell it. It was a nightmare and she was only happy to see it for an instant. She climbed in it and sat for a moment, damp and cold. Maybe she was a walker? Maybe this would be the turn around? Maybe she was strong and ambulant? Like a giraffe. A tiny lightness came to her. She practiced laughing sharply at other people’s gym memberships, for later, when she saw them again at a party when she was back on her feet, dressed in a black lace frock with yellow shoulder spray that she’d bought for herself. If he took the car she’d be amazing. She turned the key and nothing happened but a knocking sound.

Nothing changed in Abigail at all as the lightness left. She didn’t even try the car again. She just got out and looked around. There was a house across the road. It looked closer than the other houses, even the ones on her side of the street and before she knew it, she was walking past its letterbox. There was a woman cutting flowers off a variegated camellia beside the steps that looked like they led to the main door.

‘Hello’, said the woman, not looking away from her work, reaching quite high into the shrub whose flowers looked like babies mouths.

Abigail said nothing.

The woman held the winning flowers in her hand and wound them slightly. Then she looked at Abigail but only fleetingly. ‘Okay’, she said, it wasn’t a question, and she walked past Abigail and down the path.

Abigail looked up the stairs at the front door, which was slightly ajar. ‘Your door’s open’, Abigail shouted to the woman who was now on the street getting into a small car.

‘Not my door’, the woman shouted back.

Abigail watched her drive off, then climbed the stairs and knocked on the door. No one replied, she needed to go to the loo now. She knocked harder, really just to see if the door would open. If the door opened just from knocking surely she could use the loo? And it did. So she knocked again quietly now, almost without noise, and again and again, slowly edging the door open. Saying in a whisper, ‘Hello. Anyone home?’ until she was standing in a hallway with 13 doors and the front one closing again to ajar behind her.

All the doors were shut now. ‘Hello?’ she said again, for the benefit of later, if someone asked her. She felt like there was always a story formulating at the moment. Like someone was ghost-writing her life directly into her head. ‘I knocked’, she said out-loud, to herself as she walked toward the first door, ‘I called out. No one answered.’ There was a bedroom and a study and a study and a room with a bath and a shower and then she found it. It was a long skinny room with a toilet at the end of it. ‘Hello?’ she called one last time.

She was sure the flush would rouse someone. You’d hear it even outside but when she left the room the house still felt empty. There was one last door she hadn’t opened, it was a cupboard but she left it shut because as she walked to it she saw the window in the lounge which she’d seen from the street and it was bigger than she expected and all of her except the polite part wanted to stand next to it and look out at the hills.

The lounge was empty but there was still art on the walls. A large plane of yellow, disrupted at its base, nested in a white frame behind glass and another, slightly smaller. A photograph of a room Abigail recognised that hummed warm and a collage, the cut-outs pushing everything flat — wheels, trees. But there was no furniture at all. Even a built-in chair had been removed. Abigail ran her hands over the change in colour on the wall where it had been. Now she was in the room she almost forgot about the window. It was like being inside an enormous woodwind instrument. What she suspected was rimu masquerading as maple or some other northern hemisphere wood and there was peg board on the internal walls. She rested her cheek against the peg board in between the yellow and a photograph of book spines — tucked herself under a light fitting. She lifted her hand and the yellow played at her skin like a buttercup. Did she like yellow? Why yes she did? She could feel that there was a gap in the wall behind the pegboard, so the heat would travel through it — like it breathed. ‘Hello?’ she said and her voice was eaten into the gap and taken somewhere else in the house.

She turned, followed the walls round and down and it was then she noticed that the room wasn’t completely empty. It opened into the tail of a capital L as she walked away from the door she’d come in and in the corner, partially tucked behind what looked like a bar on coasters was a laptop and black notebook. Abigail looked behind her for what she promised herself would be the last time. From how the house looked from the road she imagined there was a large section behind it. Natives she imagined, punctuated by the tea flowers, drumming out their pink in between the proper trees. Someone was probably out there. Listening to music not aware they’d left the door open. But she wouldn’t look behind her again. She walked toward the bar wheeled it on its clock-like arc and crouched to the laptop and notebook. She didn’t sit down or pick it up immediately. Sitting down said something about intent, crouching felt like just checking. Someone could be hurt. The screen opened up easily, it was a light laptop and because it didn’t take much effort, like the door, Abigail ran her three middle fingers over the mousepad at the bottom of the keyboard and watched as the screen came to life. It wasn’t plugged in, it was completely free. She tucked the notebook under her arm, picked up the laptop and carried it to the middle of the lounge so she was in the light from the window. Then she sat down. She’d just check her email and maybe Facebook, but probably Facebook first. No one ever emailed with good news and someone might be online who could give her a hand. Drive her somewhere. That was the way the story was writing itself, getting itself ready for an audience. Framing the truth.

The keyboard clicked as if it were her own as she logged into Facebook. Then she began to scroll. Photos of many children, even, she slowed her scroll, her own. Graeme didn’t understand she could still see them when he posted them like this. They were with her mother-in-law, at a playground. Amanda was getting too old for playgrounds and she wore a scowl. Davie was jumping around. Graeme’s mother had never liked Amanda and Abigail knew now she’d be wearing all of it. Abigail kept going. Cats. Dogs. Food. People generally looked happy. No one seemed to have missed her. Then a photo of a boat, a large ferry with people crushed in, falling off the side, off the wharf. Crush. ‘These aren’t Syrians,’ the caption read, ‘they are Europeans trying to get to North Africa during the world war… So next time you think of closing the borders you might want to check with your grandparents.’ Abigail touched the people in the water on the screen. What happened to them? Another cat. A small flying animal. She couldn’t like anything because then he’d know she had access to a computer. An inspirational quote. A new café in Auckland that was selling salads in Mason jars. Abigail’s hand slipped slightly on the mouse pad closing the tab with her Facebook account in it. Another tab appeared from under it.

It was a Dropbox folder. There were several images above the list of file names. A woman in a shirt dress belted at the waist, neat dark hair, standing front foot flexed so only the very back of her sole was touching the floor. Maybe just the heel of her black leather pumps. She had a drum stick in one hand and a single snare drum in front of her. Her audience was a room full of men in suits. Some of the men held other percussion instruments, in various states of attention none of them smiled, all of them looked at her. But, Abigail zoomed in, one of the men, holding what looked like a small hollow drum looked away from the women who stood in front of them. She looked again at the other men in the audience, they all looked like they wanted to look away. Because she was dead to them. Because they’d make sure she had nothing. Because they hoped she’d have some dignity and not make a scene.

There were more versions of the photo in the folder. It had come from a double spread, an article called ‘Teachers Taught’. Two women painted shyly, like they were posing in Vogue. Men rolled up their sleeves. Nancy Martin. ‘Miss Martin conducting a course in rhythm exercise.’ ‘Advising teachers in methods of music and rhythm was Miss Nancy Martin, L.R.S.M., music tutor for Adult Education Department Victoria University College, Wellington.’ Miss Martin played the drum.

Abigail was drying out. She stood to take her coat off. She felt like a cup of tea and idly walked to the kitchen to put the kettle on. As she filled the jug she could see a kawakawa tree out the window above the sink and after she turned the jug on she slipped her feet out of her wet sneakers and into the shoes by the kitchen door. She went into the garden to pull two leaves and stuff them in the bottom of a mug she found in a cupboard. The cupboards were painted white but some of them were chipped and she could see the bright colours they had originally been. She picked at one, as she imagined two women in a large hall, one was Nancy, drum stick in hand, the other played cello.

‘I’m going to commission a house’, Nancy says. ‘Ha’, says the other, resting the cello between her legs while she turns the page over on the music stand, bow still in hand. They are talking while the rest of the orchestra plays something upbeat with, for the moment, no cello and no drums — Abigail wasn’t sure there was a song like that. ‘Benda is an architect.’ ‘This is why I mention it to you.’ BAM. Nancy hits the drum. SMASH. She hits a cymbal. ‘When can I talk to your husband?’

Back at the computer Abigail finds out the women’s husband is Frederick Ost and Nancy is a spinster. Maybe Abigail could be a spinster? She was flicking through the notebook now too. The writing was long and large, there was plenty of white space. Some pages just said, ‘Cousin’, others had words and words of writing pushed in together, but on almost every page ‘Nancy’ with a strong ‘y’. Almost all her fingers place-holding pages, Abigail flicked through the notebook and read out loud, ‘Art’. Flick. ‘Music’. Flick. ‘Money’. Then reading more closely but still out loud, ‘Recorder — democratic, portable, cheap. Avant-garde music. Drums. New Zealand art investment.’ She sipped at her kawakawa tea then looked around, the house seemed much fuller, like the words now said had moved in, it didn’t seem empty any more. Abigail’s sister had had an abortion. She was about to start her OE when she found out she was pregnant. She was never pregnant again. Abigail often thought of the other version of her sister. The ghost version that never went away and instead had a 30-year-old son, but now for the first time she thought about her own ghost self, the spinster Abigail. She could make it happen. People were making things happen all the time. Moving on. Moving out. Starting again.

She went back to Facebook, to the photos of the people on the boats, in the water. Under it there was a link to a news article, New Zealand would take an extra 600 Syrian refugees. She scrolled down to the comments. ‘What about our homeless people, our starving families?’ one said. ’How will we pay for this?’ another asked. ‘So it begins, the Islamisation of NZ.’ People were starting again all the time but they needed to be very, very quiet. Abigail had agreed with everything Graeme said. She’d stopped calling, she’d stopped knocking on his door. She was a dreadful parent, she didn’t deserve the car.

She googled ‘Frederick Ost’. The first five images showed four bright cubist and impressionist paintings. Flanked by these was a book The Vltava Still Sings: Modern Czech Verse. Abigail looked at the large photograph of book spines on the wall. Was he a writer as well as a painter as well as an architect? Did you have to choose? Then she looked at the paintings again. One of them was the painting that was on the wall by the kitchen. She looked at the hills out Nancy’s large window, thought of Rita Angus, of Toss Woollaston, of Doris Lusk. Of the New Zealand story they told. ‘Can we send them back when Europe is stabilised?’ She could see another camellia out the window by the deck and the way it didn’t quite sit comfortably with the native bush. Then as she scrolled down there were tiki. Large, pen-and-ink drawings, skewed perspectives of Maori art, married with Cubist features, not comfortably. Nancy drummed. Ost shouted desperation, anger, trouble at the hills, at the landscapes and the stories we told ourselves. ‘So it begins the uncovering of the truth about NZ.’ The house seemed so noisy now. The large lounge, the asymmetrical roof, the big, big window. People made things happen all the time. Started over — not even quietly sometimes. Nancy had walked into the bank, alone, made an appointment sat in a room with men in suits whose wives were at home or at a most enjoyable afternoon with 40 members of the Ladies Auxiliary, guests of the president, Mrs. P., at her home at the bay. The reception-rooms charmingly decorated with bowls of delphinium and poppies, greatly admiring the glorious views from the windows of verdant hills and sparkling seas. And Nancy Martin was in their office asking for money to build a house. A radical house. A modernist house. A feminist house.

How the fuck had she talked them into the mortgage? Maybe she hadn’t needed to? Maybe Nancy Martin was rich? Abigail looked at the photo of her again. The dress looked like a work dress. Abigail had worked for a while after she married Graeme. Graeme was rich. First for independence, then because it fulfilled her. But he earnt so much more than Abigail that when she got pregnant it made sense for her to quit and then it made sense that seeing she was home she might as well have another baby and then it made sense that she should be there when the children finished school and then the school needed some help with a fundraiser and then it was nine years later and she was sleeping with Richard who repulsed her.

The land title was in the Dropbox. Abigail was sitting crossed legged now. Nancy Martin was ‘seised of the estate’ in one thousand nine hundred and fifty-seven. There was a mortgage number listed 363957. Abigail squinted at the screen — the Australian Mutual Provident Society. ‘Provident’, Abigail said. She shuffled back so she could lie down against the wall and put the laptop on her bent knees. She was no Nancy Martin. Marriage had made her soft. She stopped for a moment. Looked up as if she had been seized. But, Abigail thought to herself, she’d left. It’d been messy and humiliating, louder than she’d hoped, it hurt so many people but she had been hard enough to leave. She opened a new tab and found the photos of her kids again. She knew what Graeme was doing. That although it looked like it, and while he held most of the power, he didn’t hold all of the power. Nancy in the office by herself. There had to be a way out that she hadn’t thought of yet. The laptop was running out of charge. She picked up the notebook and flipped through it. If she started walking now she could be back to the house she was staying in before the sun went down. She’d go to a different bank tomorrow. Open an account, explain her money was tied up in investment but she wanted a credit card. She’d need an address. She opened the title again. 81 Fraser Drive. That sounded like the sort of address someone who a bank gives a credit card to lives at. Once she had the credit card she’d a get a flat. Once she had accommodation they’d have to let the children visit — maybe Amanda could stay. She went to the kitchen and washed the cup. It was still raining. But you can only get so wet. Once you’re soaked it’s over. She put the cup back in the cupboard and closed it. She pulled the door shut behind her and it clicked. In the shelter of the front porch she tucked the notebook against her skin and under enough layers of clothes to keep it dry. She still had the keys to the car in her pocket and with them she scratched ‘Fuck you’ on the bonnet of the BMW and then threw them deep into the bush. If it hadn’t been raining she’d have set it on fire. She walked up the hill toward Karori.