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Authors: Marilyn Duckworth

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BOOK: Leather Wings
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Esther drives home through the city, noticing the skyline is coming apart much as her own life seems to be doing. Great gaps have appeared where once there were solid buildings, richly stocked with sale goods, brightly lit after sun down. The one-way system leads her past a parking lot like a derelict bomb site and this is what she feels — derelict.

At the dairy on the corner she picks up today’s news, two litres of milk and a packet of pastel-coloured jellybabies for Jania — then worries that they will end up each with a name and personality, sticky, doomed citizens of the metropolis on the bedroom floor.

WALLACE

S
OME PEOPLE COUNT
sheep to get off to sleep, bloody silly if you ask me. What I do is go over my product list — vanilla essence, lemon essence, rum essence — chanting like in primary school. I don’t sleep now, haven’t been able to get off for more than five minutes for weeks and yet it feels like I’m sleeping. When I walk down the street for my newspaper and chocolate, I’m dreaming on my feet. I just lift up a supply of Bounty Bars, Kango, Picnic, not really choosing just filling my hands up, and shove them at the girl by the till.

I mean, what can I do about it? Find out it’s true, what use is that? Find out it’s
not
true … if only. I think it is true. They’ve damaged my little pixie. All those nice nice people who are supposed to keep her safe, her family, what have they been doing? Letting her get scars on her neck and God knows what else? And now this! She might never grow up — well, that’s no bad thing, I can’t bear to think of her swelling up into one of those tarts like the girl behind the counter who won’t smile at me, like Mother whose job has always been to spoil my fun. I can’t bear to think of that soft white skin turning to rubber, her little pink ears sagging like an old pig’s. But I can’t bear either to think of her sick, not breathing right, her eyes — those big eyes.

I don’t trust them. They’ll put her away in a hospital bed somewhere, out of sight out of mind, like when I had my penicillin reaction. They didn’t need to shove me into hospital that time just because my skin hurt, but I looked like a Red Skin, they said, ugly as well as clumsy; stick him out of sight with his funny skin and his funny tongue. I wouldn’t let that happen to her. I don’t know what to do. Yet. I’m thinking.

I think about that sparrow in the coffee shop and I think about my dream. I think hard and bring back the yellow canary like a light bulb dazzling her little face, and I nearly get the feeling back as well, the special feeling swimming in and out of me, leaving me washed out and weak.

I can’t go to the mall and buy a coffee and catch a sparrow
in my hat, if I had a hat, which I don’t. But there’s a pet shop near the supermarket. Pet shops sell birds. I don’t even think about it any more, the next thing I know I’m there, in the shop, as if a magic genie wished me there. I can’t find a canary! It’s ridiculous but there isn’t one canary in the shop Never mind, I don’t make a fuss, I choose a budgie, a little yellow budgerigar, nearly yellow, as bright as I can find, and I pay for it with my Visa card, the bird and the cage, not a big cage, all I can afford. I don’t know why I’m doing this, I just have to have a bird, not for Jania, for me, for the dream. And I go to the coffeeshop with my cage and sit there, at the table where they were sitting that time, on Jania’s chair, I hope. Why would they change the chairs around? I sit on her chair and I can feel the warmth of her little bottom heating me up. Nosy people pass by and make remarks about the budgie: “Does it talk?” Of course, it doesn’t talk, you silly old fart. It isn’t a parrot. But perhaps it will talk to me, perhaps I’ve bought myself a mate?

I’m feeling pretty good, nearly wide awake, when I see them come in, Jania’s grandma and — no, not him, wait for it — another man! No Jania — well, there wouldn’t be, would there, not if that woman’s up to no good, and the way they carry on with each other they look like something more than just good friends. Slut. And I really thought she was a good woman, even if she’s no good for Jania. I sit up straight and wait for them to look at me, I want to give her a fright, she deserves it — I could cook her goose, couldn’t I? I’m the Rawleigh’s man, I suppose she thinks that’s no one, not a real person, like the bus driver, not really there, but I am! What am I saying, I don’t like that Rex, he’s a creep, serve him right if she’s cheating. I blink my eyes at her, waiting, then I get up, leaving my fudge cake behind and half a cup of coffee, and walk right by them swinging my budgie — and they don’t even look up! They can’t see anything except each other, they’re talking flat stick. I go back for my fudge cake, wrapping it up in a serviette, and try again but no result. They just won’t turn their stupid heads, I might as well be invisible. This time they’ve raised their voices, it’s an argument, this is interesting, my budgie could learn some bad language from this. And I thought they were two lovebirds! She bangs her
chair back, looking like a tantrum, face all squeezed, and wags her bum getting out of the coffee shop in a hurry.

Then the man looks at me, too late, and makes a staring face at me as if I’m some sort of pervert eavesdropper. I don’t care, I go after Esther and I catch her up by the escalator, she nearly knocks into me. I find I’m touching her sleeve and I mutter some sort of greeting.

She’s angry. “What do
you
want?”

“I’m sorry. I thought you looked upset — that’s all. I’m sorry.”

“I am upset.” She calms down, I’ve made her feel guilty, after all what have
I
done? I’m innocent. “It’s all right, I’m sorry.”

Both of us sorry.

“Perhaps you need a drink? I thought I might go and have a whisky in the wine bar.”

She laughs at me, “They don’t sell whisky in wine bars, at least, I don’t think so.”

“Wine then. A glass of wine?”

“Is that a budgie?”

“This? I just bought him for my little girl’s birthday.”

A sigh, that sound a woman makes before she gives in. “Oh, all right then. A drink could be what I need. Let’s do it. Just one, okay? Wallace, isn’t it?”

As if I’m no one special in her life, someone whose name she barely remembers. Doesn’t she
know
? It seems incredible that she doesn’t know.

 

R
EX HAS BEEN
waiting at home for Esther, too long again. When he turns around to greet her there is no warmth in his face apart from that which rises from the oven grill.

She has to say something. “You’ll never guess what I’ve just been doing.” Brightly. She makes a great show of unpacking the bread and the cartons of milk. She is a stage-set wife, delivering rehearsed lines.

“Oh, yes?”

“Having a drink with the Rawleigh’s man.”

“You what? Why?”

“Because he asked me. I’d had this shitty day and we bumped into each other …”

“I told you he fancied you.”

“No you didn’t, you said that’s what
I
thought. Anyway, it wasn’t like that. He’d just bought this bird for his little girl and we got talking.”

“You and the bird,” Rex says, making a joke, but so heavily she nearly misses it.

“His little girl’s going to be nine.” As soon as she says this she knows why the information has stuck to her tongue. Jania. Jania is barely six and nine is a huge question mark. The question mark hovers between them and Rex can see it too. They stare at each other while the chops sizzle.

“What little girl?” Jania is suddenly in the room with them, a physical presence, which is so real it has a way of wiping out the new ghost that haunts them; that other Jania, ailing and sentenced, just doesn’t seem possible. “Whose girl?”

“Wallace — you know, the Rawleigh’s man. He’s got his little girl a budgie.”

Rex frowns at Esther — too late. He has an aversion to feathered things and is clearly nervous the child will put in an order. She does.

“I want a budgie. Can I have a budgie, Esther?”

“It isn’t really kind to shut them up,” Esther says diplo
matically, knowing how Rex feels. “How would you like to live in a cage?”

“But that’s where birds live.”

“No they don’t, they live in trees — should live in trees,” Rex growls.

“Is he cruel then?”

“Who?”

“That Wallace.”

“It’s all right for budgies, they’re bred in cages so they’re used to it,” Esther has to explain. “No, he’s not cruel, I expect he’s being kind, giving his little girl a present. Your grandad doesn’t like birds.”

“I want a budgie,” Jania says with a dangerous note in her voice. “I want a budgie.”

“I told you …”

“I want a budgie! Budgie! Budgie!” Jania yells.

“Don’t shout. We’ll see,” Esther says weakly.

“We won’t see,” Rex mutters, burns himself on the grill and curses.

“If you don’t get me a budgie I’ll …” Jania rummages in her repertoire of suitable threats. “I’ll wet the bed!”

“That’ll do, young lady. Go and wash your hands. Now!” Esther flings knives and forks on to the table, angry because Rex has contradicted her, because he had a right to contradict her, she has been weak. But it’s that much harder now to be firm, to deny the child. They mustn’t spoil her.

“I thought she’d been better lately,” she says to Rex. “Easier.”

“That’s because we give in.”

“She thinks Martin’s coming next week. Have you told her?”

Martin had telephoned on Friday and in the course of this told Jania he would be arriving in Auckland and renting a car to drive straight down to Wellington. Meanwhile he has contacted Rex again and postponed the trip until after Christmas, over a month away.

“People shouldn’t make promises to kids.”

“No. You mean like birds?”

“I said we’d
see.

Jania arrives back and watches warily, she can see they are
still arguing. She hugs her shiny cushion against her chest, and while she watches her grumpy grandparents she buries her nose in it, eyes peering over the top.

Rex lunges at once and tugs it from her by one corner of braid. “Don’t put your face in it! That thing’s filthy.” He throws it into the corner of the room by the rubbish basket.

“That’s my pillow!”

“Leave it,” Esther says. “I’ll get it dry-cleaned tomorrow.”

“But I need …”

“You don’t need it. I’ll give you one of the front-room cushions.”

“They don’t …”

“Just don’t argue, Jania! Your dinner’s going cold. Sit down.”

The meal is nearly silent, apart from Jania’s sniffles into her chop and the deafening tension twanging between the two grownups. The child can see they are at war and looks from one to the other as if she suspects herself of being the cause. She glances at the cushion rebelliously from time to time, pointedly so that they will notice.

They notice. They are no longer angry at each other but at themselves. They are sad.

WALLACE

I
DIDN’T THINK
for one moment she’d accept my invitation. Why ask her then? Beats me. Don’t tell me you’ve never done something illogical without thinking about it; someone out there’s moving us all around the chessboard like my father gloating over his clever game. I do things all the time without thinking and other times I think and think and plan and don’t do what I’ve been thinking and planning at all. Just as well sometimes, I think a lot about Claude for instance, about wickedness, I’d be in jail many times over. That’s not what it’s about with Jania, she’s different, I swear — how did I get on to Jania? Esther, it was Esther who accepted my invitation, not that I wasn’t drinking with her to find out about her grandchild, I was doing exactly that, but of course I had to go through the motions, like sales talk, I’m good at going through the motions. You have to lie a little, it’s expected.

We didn’t sit at the bar, she had one of those silly long skirts with a slit but too tight over her bum. We sat at one of those cold shiny tables and I put the bird cage down beside me — he was carrying on a bit — but she said no, no, put it on the table so he can see, so I did and people looked at the bird and some of them smiled.

She asked me how old my daughter was going to be on her birthday and that threw me for a bit, but I came up with a figure. Nine, I told her, but she didn’t leave it there, she wanted a name. You can’t hesitate over a name, you might forget your kid’s age but not her name, so I said the first thing that came into my head.

“Sharon.”

“Sharon? Oh, that’s the name of our babysitter.”

This was dicey because I didn’t know if Jania had told her about meeting me at the play area. I used my lisp to confuse what I said next and then, “I’ve met that Sharon, her mother’s on my books, she always offers me a cup of tea. I have one with her, to keep her company, I think she’s a lonely lady.”

Esther looked embarrassed, would you believe. “I hope you don’t think I’m a lonely lady?”

I didn’t know what to say to that, it was a funny question, so I shook my head and peered in at the budgerigar as if he’d distracted me.

“I expect there’s people, house-bound people, who rely on someone like you for a chat. I think it’s a shame the way old people can die and no one finds them for days and days. Weeks sometimes.”

“That’s right.” How did she know? It did happen to me once — the smell, the filthy clingy pong. I called the police, I don’t like to think about it. “Are you feeling better now?” I ask her.

“How do you mean?”

“You were upset.”

“Oh, yes. Thank you.”

“And Jania? How’s the wee girl?” There. She had to answer that one, didn’t she, but she copied my trick, tapped on the bird cage and made kissing noises at the budgie before she finally came out with —

“She’s fine. She’d love a pet, she’d love something like this but Rex has an aversion. To birds. And cats. Children, too, maybe.” Then she looked right at me and said, “I didn’t want her to come to us in the first place, you know. I haven’t been much of a grandmother. When her father said he was sending her over, just like that, I was angry — was that terrible of me? — using us, I thought. Well, he was. He wanted his freedom for a bit. Rex wasn’t keen either and she’s certainly been a handful, it hasn’t been easy. What about
our
freedom? I’m a busy person, with work and — you’ll laugh — I’ve been trying to write a novel. And Rex, he’s not well. The last thing we needed was a spoilt child dumped on us. But …”

She went on to say a whole lot more, but I lost it, most of it. Spoilt child! I was shocked that she could talk that way. It wasn’t any more than I’d guessed, but it shocked me having it spelt out. They didn’t want her. Her father didn’t want her. And her mother?

“What happened to her mother?”

She looked irritated then, as if she had already told me,
and perhaps she had, I’d stopped listening. “The accident. I just said.”

“Oh, yes. I’m sorry.” Jania’s mother must have been this woman’s daughter. I tried to look sympathetic, I forced that smile on me, that one that doesn’t fit, but it seemed to convince her.

“Her father promised her he was coming over next week, but he isn’t now, he’s let her down again — too
busy.
I don’t know how she’ll behave when she finds out, and we’ll have to cope with that, won’t we?”

I can’t stand to hear any more of this. I put my hand over her wrist and hold it there, to shut her up. I shouldn’t have done that. She stares at me and stops talking. Then she pulls her hand out and I let it go.

“Wallace, I think you’ve got the wrong idea.” She stands up. “I have to go. I must go home to my family. Thank you for the drink.”

She is gone. And I’m sitting there on my own, blushing like a girl with anger and shock. The bitch! She thought I was making a pass at her, at
her!
I want to throw up, it’s disgusting.

I go and buy a big block of Caramello at the newsagent and I’m back into sleepwalking, driving in my sleep, I don’t want to think, but you can’t switch off, can you? There’s this Caramello chocolate wrapper lying on the passenger seat but I’m sure I didn’t eat it, I don’t remember eating it. I lick my teeth and there’s a taste of toffee there. I hate it when that happens, I’m losing control.

 

When you can’t sleep they say the best thing is to get up and do something, perform some boring necessary task, it’s a good idea. Is it a boring necessary task to read the entertainment columns in the newspaper?
Fantasy World, Sunday Special, Petite Pandora. This wild child is for you. Naughty Nymph, totally bare where it counts.
Auckland phone numbers, no use to me, it makes no odds. Boring, necessary, I am boring myself sick, nothing works, it’s like drinking salt water. I’m dying of thirst. Let me ask you, what do you do when you’re thirsty? Have a drink, right? Good clean water — easy for some.

I check over my list of products, making a list of the gaps,
not in my head, in my order book. A useful, necessary task, although I’ve sold nothing this week, not so much as a toothpick. Later when I look I find I’ve written her name.

It’s always worse at night, when the streets are empty, when you know the houses are guarding sleeping bodies, innocent sleeping bodies. Is sleep catching? If I lay down beside innocent sleep, touching, I could sleep, I’m sure I could sleep, I’m so tired. I walk in the street, groaning as if I’m sick, as if I’m the victim of some hit and run. Better if I was. People like me don’t deserve to live in the world, I know that, but I’m here, what should I do? There’s a restaurant I saw advertised on the box — Death By Chocolate. That’s a good one. If it were that easy I’d be six feet under, worm food.

 

E
STHER IS HAVING
trouble with Jania’s medication, as they call it these days. The child doesn’t like it, won’t take it, can see no reason to swallow a vile syrup.

“I’m not sick.”

“No, but you might be if you don’t swallow it.”

This sounds to Jania like a threat, her face wrinkles as if she is about to cry, but there are no tears. Esther remembers the little girl at three and a half years old sitting up in the hospital bed recovering from the wounds inflicted by a buckled, clapped-out van. There were other wounds, less obvious, the scarring knowledge of her mother’s death, but Jania hadn’t cried then; the nurses had called her brave and crowded her with cuddly toys, only Esther had thought it peculiar. She wondered if Jania understood what had happened, and later she wondered if her grandchild was self-centred or even autistic. There was something off-putting about her self-possession.

The scars of grief might be hard to treat, but at least doctors don’t attempt to fill your veins with a phial of someone else’s poisonous happiness to replace your own. They can’t transfuse a donor’s tranquillity laced with a fatal virus.

“You don’t want me to hold your nose, do you?”

“It tastes funny!”

“Of course it tastes funny. It’s medicine.”

“Can I have … will you give me …?” Jania bargains, thinking hard about what sort of blackmail she might be able to extort. Her mouth has fallen open in thought.

Esther takes this opportunity and lunges with the plastic spoon. When Jania has swallowed and choked her breath back, she screws up her mouth and glares, ugly with hate.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“Yes! You tricked me. I thought you were my grandma!”

“I am your grandma. That’s why I want you to take your syrup. And I won’t be held to ransom every time, do you understand? It’s for your own good.” The phrase sounds so meaningless, when it is full of meaning. “Don’t worry, I daresay
you’ll get your red bus.” She guesses this is what the child had been about to demand. “For Christmas.”

“Christmas is too late!” This trips a switch in her memory. “I want Daddy to come. I want him to come now — he was going to. Why won’t you let him come?”

“He will. When he’s finished all his work.”

“You don’t like Daddy.”

“That’s silly. Of course, I like your daddy.”

Jania frowns. She watches Esther with suspicion. “Doesn’t Daddy like me any more?”

“Jania! What a silly thing to say, I’m sure he loves you.” Appalled, Esther reaches for the little girl, but she ducks sideways out of her way, butts into Rex who is coming through the door, and slides free of him as well.

“Anyone would think we were trying to poison her,” Esther complains to Rex.

“No need really,” Rex says heavily. “Is there?”

“I hate the way she won’t be comforted. Prue was never like that, she let you give her a hug.”

“She isn’t Prue, she never will be Prue.”

“Don’t be clever, I know what she’ll never be.” She sighs. “I could wring that man’s neck. No.” She glances over her shoulder guiltily. “We mustn’t talk about him, I think she listens.”

 

In bed, as she is almost dropping off to sleep, she hears her own voice saying again to Jania, “I won’t be held to ransom, do you understand?” Except it is her mother’s voice as well, a shriller voice than her own, which makes her feel uncomfortable, nearly sick. She doesn’t need to dream about her mother on top of everything else. When she was twelve she had had a lot of these dreams, one particularly hateful dream in which her mother was cruelly jabbing something sharp into her side. When she woke it turned out she had started her first period, her stomach hurt; but later when she thought about the dream she remembered her mother’s claw hands sticking into her shoulders. That was real, those claws. Her mother was losing her grip on reality, transferring her grip on to Esther, shaking her till her teeth hurt. Her father explained it to her. She
wasn’t to talk about it at school. Like she wasn’t to talk about the ringworm on her arm, which she’d caught from her cat. She wore that like a secret black mark against her character, under a decent flesh-coloured sticky plaster.

Now they have to wear Jania’s black secret, discreetly covered up, for her own sake, for all their sakes.

She hadn’t really sounded like that to the child, had she? Shrill? A voice that clutches at you?

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