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Authors: Vincent O'Sullivan

Owen Marshall Selected Stories (52 page)

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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As we came round a corner from brown and icing sugar there was a sound in the dark like a mallet on a wooden peg, and Buster went down in front of me with a hissing cry, the torch skittering away on the bare, concrete floor. ‘Shit, shit,' he said in a suppressed, angry voice. ‘Just grab the torch,' he said when I knelt down by him, and when I brought it back he snatched it and shone it on his feet. His left foot was in a gin trap which was chained to the rack. The serrated jaws were sunk into Buster's ankle just above his sneakers. It was an old trap, heavily corroded although it had been given a recent oil rub all over.

Buster told me to kneel down close to his foot and take hold of one side of the jaws. He took the other. ‘Try not to touch my foot,' he said, ‘and pull slowly when I say.' We did it carefully, because I could tell what Buster feared was that one of us would lose grip before there was space for him to get his foot out, and he'd get another dose. When the foot was free, Buster moved it cautiously, saying, ‘Shit, shit, shit,' because of the pain. ‘I don't think anything's broken,' he said. The sock had soaked up what blood there was, though there was the pearly glint of Buster's round ankle bone. He sat with his back against the rack and rested for a while. I was horrified that the storemen would lay man-traps, but Buster said the gin trap would be for rats he reckoned, big bastards after all the food. I was all for getting out straight away, but with Buster's pain and anger welled up obstinacy as well. ‘Take the torch and nick a couple of cartons of cigarettes,' he said. ‘I'm sure as fuck not leaving with bloody nothing at all.'

So finally we were back in the little office and with the key
replaced beneath the cactus pot. We let ourselves out into the dark, with a cold wind whistling at the warehouse corners. I carried the binoculars and one carton of cigarettes; Buster leant on me and tried to keep pressure off his left foot. There was nobody around in the night, and we went slowly into the RSA grounds and cut across to the river path which would take us home. Buster kept swearing when his foot got a special jolt, but he said that the warehouse people wouldn't have any idea what had sprung the trap, and we could get back in the same way anytime we damn well liked.

We never did, though, for a variety of reasons that are lost to me now, and neither do I remember seeing much of Buster after that night. When we parted close to his place, he said I could have one of the cartons, but a couple of packets was all I wanted. Buster gave me an odd, rueful grin before he limped off into the windy darkness, as if to remind me that you have to expect such things when you go up against the world.

M
oney was scarce at the end of the university year. Well, it was always scarce, but then it was just that twitchy time between the end of lectures and the start of exams. My landlady said a friend of hers was wanting someone to look after her old dad for a few days while she and her husband had a break. Fifty dollars a day with food and accommodation, and I could spend most of the time swotting, my landlady said, because no doubt the old guy would mainly be sleeping. Maybe Mrs Lills was keen on me taking it because she'd be sure of her last few weeks' rent. Maybe her motives were altruistic and she wanted to help both me and her friend.

Mrs Lills was a tall woman with skin like a trout's belly, and everything she cooked was stringy like herself, but she set very few rules in her house and didn't interfere in my life. Mr Lills was a diesel mechanic and away most of the time on off shore fishing boats. Occasionally when I came in for a meal he'd be there, his nails ringed with grease, and he never recognised my presence, never spoke a word, as if we were on separate planes of existence, although sharing the same time and space. I wondered sometimes if we would be able to walk through each other with just the whisper of images passing.

Angeline Moffit was the friend's name, and she said if I was interested in the terms, I could come over the next morning, or the one after, to meet her dad, but no later because she had to get someone sorted as soon as possible. Angeline and her husband were going to Nelson for several days. She said the doctor told her it was imperative
she have a break, absolutely imperative. I could tell from her voice that she was gratified to be the recipient of such an impressive word. My landlady said that wasn't the all of it: their marriage had been drifting, and Nelson was a second-chance honeymoon.

I went over on the morning after. The Moffits lived in Rosedown, close to the golf course, and seemed to be better off than my landlady. They had ranchslider doors that opened onto a broad concrete patio on which old man Ladd sat in a substantial chair amongst lesser, white plastic ones.

‘Dad,' said Angeline Moffit, ‘this is Brian who's going to keep you company when we're away.'

‘Away?' said Dad.

‘To Nelson and Blenheim. We talked about it, and Brian's going to make sure you're okay.'

‘Brian?' said Dad. Later I was to realise that Dad was at his best in the mornings, and that's why Angeline Moffit had asked me to call round then.

Mr Ladd was eighty-eight, and suffering some sort of painless physical implosion: a big man, collapsing in on himself so that his shoulders were no longer at right angles to his spine and his head hung like a pendulum in front of his concave chest. His daughter told me he'd been the manager of an engineering firm with two hundred and seventy people, and five branches in the North Island, but what had once been robust and secular appeared to me at first sight mournful, pious and ecclesiastic. His hands were steepled in supplication, his large eyes upturned in abandoned sockets and shadowed by thickets of grey eyebrows.

‘Brian's coming back on Sunday, Dad,' Angeline Moffit said, ‘and he'll be company for you when we're away.'

Dad didn't say anything, but his eyes rolled at me for a moment, and the bones of his chin worked loosely, like a hand beneath a sheet.

On Sunday after lunch I put a few clothes, my books and swot
notes, in my squash bag and went out to Rosedown on my Suzuki. Angeline and her husband were keen to get on their way, enjoy the imperative break from work stress, and achieve the equally imperative repair in their marriage perhaps. She said she'd written everything down on a pad by the phone, but she went over it quickly nevertheless. The first commandment, and underlined, said Dad must never be left alone. So much for squash, I thought. ‘Dad's doctor is Dr Morley Smith,' said Angeline. ‘I've got the number there, except he's away at present and someone's standing in.' They drove away in a white Corona and, after a quick wave to me, I could see them shrug off care and begin a relaxed conversation.

Dad and I had a little more difficulty gaining rapport. He was convinced I was a spray man come to moss proof the rooftiles, and didn't see why he should have to pay me to watch television with him. ‘It's too windy to spray right now,' I told him, and although there wasn't a breath outside, he was mollified. I cottoned on early that it was more productive to debate with Dad on his own terms than appeal to reality.

Women's beach volleyball was the TV programme, and Dad and I sat in the creaking Sunday afternoon and let time pass. The women were powerful, yet shapely, and Dad nodded and blinked, sometimes scratching the top of one hand with the fingers of the other. There are some big dogs which are very lugubrious, ears, lower eyelids and the gleaming sides of their mouths all drawn down. Dad was a bit like that, but his skin in parts was scaled like a dragon's. When the volleyball women had stopped flopping onto their backs in the silky sand, Dad forgot the television and told me it was time for wine and cheese.

I wondered if he was having me on, but the checklist by the phone had no prohibition on wine and cheese. There was one of those round, soft bries in the fridge, and cans of local beer. Dad was interested in the cheese, but waved the beer aside. ‘Wine, Mr Mildew, wine,' he said in a tone that implied he was humouring me
rather than the other way around. The effort of getting out of the lounge chair gave him hiccups, and when I followed him through the house, rather than discovering wine, we ended in the sunroom, where Dad stood behind the warm glass and looked over the golf course. I discovered a rack of bottles in the cupboard under the stairs, and took a pinot noir back to the sunroom as an incentive for Dad to return back to the lounge. His eyes hardly left the bottle, and he stopped only twice for a hiccup session. ‘Now you're talking,' he said. ‘Who did you say you were again?'

‘Brian.'

‘And what do you do in the firm?' he said.

‘I'm just here to keep you company till your daughter's back.'

Dad gave a shuddering yawn which ended in hiccups, and after shuffling into a calculated position with his bum towards the big chair, let himself fall back into it. Wine cured his hiccups and took the place of conversation. I watched some European soccer, and soon Dad was dozing with a piece of cheese, like a nub of chalk, in the hand resting on his lap. Awake, or asleep, he breathed always through his mouth, and his lips had an absolute demarcation between the dry, faded outer rind and the gleaming red swell within.

Angeline hadn't left a great deal of prepared food — perhaps she thought I had to earn my money somehow — but there was a large packet of savouries in the deep freeze, and I took some of those for our tea. I wanted to make a good start on my exam revision in the evening. Dad wasn't good at the end of the day, however: that was something I had to learn. He woke up when the sausage rolls and potato-topped miniature mince pies were heating, and bowled the pinot noir bottle with a random sweep of his arm. While I tried to get the stain out of the carpet before it set, Dad began with anxious interrogation. What time was it? Where was his family? Who was I? Who was he? Why hadn't he been asked to sign off the general accounts? When was his left leg to be amputated?

‘I didn't know you're going to have a leg off,' I said.

‘Who in their right mind would put up with it twitching all the time? The doctor said better to do it at home so that the Inland Revenue and the benefit people don't know. They reduce superannuation payment limb by limb the bastards.'

‘Okay.'

I put the plate of savouries between us to cool, but Dad had lost awareness of such mundane things, and bit into a very hot roll, spat it out and cried out in anger and pain. It was an oddly childish error and childish reaction.

‘I'm sorry,' I said.

‘You're stupid,' he said. ‘Who are you anyway? I thought you were going to spray the roof and then piss off. Why don't you go now.' With tears still shining in the nooks and folds of his old face, he began to finger other savouries with a fearful interest. ‘What's in these anyway?'

‘Sausage, egg and bacon, mince — things like that.'

‘That's all right then,' Dad said. ‘You need something to put lead in your pencil, not all lettuce leaves and bloody bran. You can't do a day's work on rabbit food.'

‘Eat these up then,' I said, and he did, enjoying the flavour once they'd cooled a bit.

But after tea it was still broad daylight at that time of year, and how could you expect a grown man to go to bed. Dad couldn't concentrate on the television, yet was absorbed for almost an hour arranging the loose armrest covers on his armchair. ‘Where did you say we are?' he asked finally when he'd lost both sleeves down the squab sides.

‘At your place.'

‘This rat hole doesn't ring a bell with me,' he said in a voice worn with age, a husky echo like a mournful wind in lakeside reeds.

‘Well, it's your daughter's place then, and she looks after you here. It's good to have family for support, don't you reckon.'

Dad drooped his lower lip in silent derision, almost fell asleep,
then looked across at me for a time. ‘Where do you fit in again?'

‘I'm a sort of cousin, on the other side of the family,' I told him.

‘I thought you said you're going to spray something.'

‘Yeah, that too,' I said.

‘Most things could do with a good spray.'

In the summer twilight, almost nine o'clock, I guided Dad to his bedroom, and left the curtains open so that he could see over the golf course. There were just three boys feeling with their feet for balls in the pond, and the blue grey dusk softened their distant outlines. I put Dad's pyjamas beside him on the bed and gave him privacy so that he could undress, but when I went back, he was still sitting there and had taken off just one shoe, which he was holding to his nose like a wine glass. ‘These aren't my shoes,' he whispered. ‘Not by a long bloody chalk they're not, and I'm hungry, I haven't had anything to eat. If you don't eat you don't shit and if you don't shit you die.'

‘What about all the savouries and cheese? What about the wine before you clobbered the bottle?'

‘What do you mean?'

‘I mean you've had your tea.'

‘I'm hungry,' he said.

I got Dad a piece of white bread and honey, and gradually got his clothes off as he passed it from hand to hand. He had a jersey, shirt and singlet on despite summer, and his bones were the only strong lines on his white body. ‘There'll be someone in the house tonight, won't there?' he said.

The whole business of getting him off to bed took much longer than I'd thought, and I didn't try to get any swot done after all. I told myself that I'd have a routine for the three days. After watching triceratops and brachiosaurus shaking the earth for half an hour, I switched off the TV, and went to the bedroom Angeline had assigned me, which doubled as her husband's study. The bed was more a settee, and little further than nose distance from the grunty
desktop PC and inkjet colour printer. Most of the books were about structural engineering: titles like
Ferro Concrete and Earth Tremors
,
Stress Coefficients in Angular Steel
and
T
he Place of Design in Practical
Construction
. There were a few rugby books, with the photograph pages sticking out slightly from the remainder of the text.

I fell asleep with my face in the eerie green glow of a digital clock, close enough to swallow. A dream of monsters possessed me utterly until a utahraptor reared up and cried, ‘I need to shit. Why has this bloody place no lavatory? Rats, rats everywhere, but no lavatory.' The incongruity, and perhaps the scale of consequence, woke me suddenly, and the kiwifruit clock numerals showed almost 3 a.m. Old Mr Ladd swayed in the doorway, half hobbled by his falling pyjama trousers. ‘Too late, too late,' he mourned in his stage whisper, and sobbed as he let loose on the floor.

For just a moment I imagined that if I closed my eyes I could return to the lesser terrors of giant carnivores, but the reek of reality was too strong for that. Whatever Angeline was paying me it wasn't enough. I tried to persuade Dad to stay put in the doorway so at least there would be only one clean-up site, but he wandered, desolate and tearful, soiling all as he went. Corralled in the bathroom at last, he reluctantly stepped into the shower, but there somewhat recovered his spirits in warmth and steam.

‘Who are you again?' he asked.

‘I'm your man Friday,' I said. ‘I'm your minder while Angeline's away.'

‘She was a wonderful kid, so affectionate. She and my wife were like sisters, and often when I came home from work I'd hear them laughing even as I got out of the car.'

I was almost in the shower with him, reaching through the doorway to make sure he was cleaned up. A situation of intense physical familiarity and yet we were complete strangers. It was easier, though, because I knew that soon he would have quite forgotten his recent humiliation, while his daughter's affection endured in
his memory. And she would be a wonderful kid, a glowing and retrospective emblem, no matter how cursory her later regard had become.

In new pyjamas, Dad went obediently to bed, but not to silence. As I cleaned up in the hall and bathroom, he talked on and on about his life in a time before I was born. Awareness of a listener, rather than a partner in conversation, seemed to be his need. ‘Are you there?' he'd call from time to time, and a word in reply, or a bang on the plastic bucket, was enough for him to continue. He told me that Angeline had always made his birthday cake after she was eight, that his son, Theo, could have been a world beater in gymnastics if he'd stuck at it.

‘Good, was he?' I said, after partly opening the bathroom window and coming to his doorway. ‘Where is he now?' It was out before I remembered my landlady telling me that Angeline's brother had died overseas.

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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