I’m on my break. Relaxing out the back of Hemingway’s, among the rubbish bins, in the almost dark. Away from the Celebration Menu. Away from the extractor fan’s whirr. Hand in my apron pocket, reaching for my tobacco. Weary.
And two backyards away she drops something. Down the fire stairs of a three-floor concrete office building.
THUMP, it goes. THUMP THUMP, again. It gets my attention.
Then she gets my attention.
—Fuck, she says. I think.
Something quiet, hard.
I pull out my tobacco. My papers. Peer at her. Watch her go quietly down the stairs, into the shadows, and retrieve what she’d dropped. Start up the stairs again. Towards the third floor. Capital Radio’s floor, where my mum and her mates record their community show, on air among the other community groups.
I drop some tobacco on a paper. The door behind me swings open.
Gracie steps out. Digs me in the ribs. Gestures, gimme, towards my roll-up.
—Just this once?
The woman stops at the top of the metal stairs. Looks at us. Both of us in the light spilling out from the kitchen door. What does she see? Me watching her out of the corner of my eye? Gracie’s eyes on my hands as I roll the paper round its little bundle of tobacco? Me hoping Gracie’d go back inside, her nineteen days without a smoke about to become twenty?
She opens the metal door at the top of the stairs. It screeeeches. Gracie looks up. We watch her push some bundles through the door and slip inside, a little pack on her back. Then reach out and drag another bundle in after her.
And then Gracie tells me about the diners-from-hell. Who sent back my perfect loin of salt bush lamb, caponata, grilled kipflers and Catania dressing. How when she lists the desserts, standing by his chair, one of them gooses her with his elbow. Right on the clit, and without looking at her. How she doesn’t-believe-it for a moment. Looks down, thinks she’s imagined it, launches into a vivid description of the culurgiones de mendula, with carpaccio of fresh fig from Marlborough, tea-soaked muscatels and grape jelly from Central Otago. How there-it-goes-again and she catches him, backs away. And then–
And then she realises she’s about to bleed all over the floor. And the maître d’bitch tells her off for going to change her tampon. But–
The diner-from-hell-with-an-elbow wants early summer pudding (Rattletrack Road blackcurrants and raspberries, Otaki strawberries, raspberry coulis). So she sneaks into that little corner near the back door where no-one can see her– (How did we not see her? It was a busy night & she’s a sharp cookie.) And she squeezes her used tampon into his coulis. Just a little. Stirs a little, with a long spoon.
Gracie knows how to persuade me that nineteen days is long enough without a smoke. I tell her off. And then I compromise. One puff for her. One for me.
Then Norman shouts from the kitchen. And back I go. Leaving Gracie with the last two puffs. Hoping she’ll come home with me. I loved the nights when she looked across the empty bottles on the table, smiled and held out her hand, the way the others watched us leave, the way she’d tidy my tidy kitchen while she made a pot of tea. Bleeding or not, I loved her in my bed, her sigh of pleasure when her head hit the pillow.
I forgot about the other woman. Never gave her a thought.
The other woman was me. I see the light falling through the open door, two people among the trash cans. (Love trash cans. Brought up on Oscar, the beginning of my love for that little screen.) I try to look relaxed-and-normal and hope they won’t call the cops. And that’s hard, because I’m completely knackered. Anxious about finding the lights. Wanting a hot drink. Needing a comfortable place for my sleeping bag. Wanting to sleep. With no pills, no booze, and no child to listen for.
Yep. I’m Gracie. Gorgeous on a good day. Gorgon on others. I’m the writer.
Vita tosses out the bulging laundry bag, shoulders her backpack and steps out onto the fire escape. Pulls the door shut. Looks past the neons and streetlights of nearby Cuba Street, out towards the lights in the houses and apartment blocks and university on the hill.
Secures the door, moves towards the rusty metal steps. And sees him, sitting a couple of rungs down.
—What’re you doing here?
He goes for flattery.
—Nice beanie– Like the boots–
She lifts the laundry bag and clanks across the landing. Raises her voice.
—WHAT are you doing here?
He’s not scared. Jerks his head towards the locked door.
—Waiting to nick your laptop–
She comes up close, squats down at the edge of the landing so their faces are almost level. He smells slightly stale. He has a full-blown zit on his cheek. Nearby, a couple more zits are on their way; he’s been worrying at the full-blown one. He’s brand dressed. With expensive (Converse) grubby sneakers.
—What’re YOU doing?
She lifts her foot. Just in time, he sees what’s coming. Leaps to his feet, backs up against the stair rail. Grips it with one hand, holds up the other.
—No– And don’t push me– I’ll jump–
She gestures: down you go.
—Jump somewhere else–
He smiles. He’s a child, she thinks. Turning on the charm. A beautiful child.
A child. She feels nauseous, hitches at the laundry bag and takes a step down, grabs his free arm, attempts to turn and push him.
His smile disappears.
—Don’t push me– This isn’t your yard– Not your fire escape–
He’s got her.
But she has a go, anyway.
—O yes it is. MOVE.
He turns and starts down. Turns back.
—Help you with the bag?
She pushes him, gently.
—Just looking at Hemingway’s. Firefly Jones gonna take me there for tea one night–
She laughs a little. (Aha. A little liar here–) Keeps pushing, and they keep moving down.
—He’s an All Black–
—Not any more, he’s not–
—He’s a real good mate–
—Yeah, right. Shoo. Shoo.
He jumps the last few steps. Turns and bows to her, smiles again. She hustles him down the alley.
Later, Vita adjusts her grasp on her bag of clean laundry and slips back into the alley. A car door slams behind her. She ignores it.
Quick footsteps follow her. She turns back towards the lighted street. Sees a car accelerate away. Sees him stop, hold up his hand. Sees him hold out his hand, towards the laundry.
—Let me help?
She looks a little more closely. Sees the black eye.
He gets that she’s softening. She moves off towards the fire escape.
She’s on the fire escape, attempting to run up, laundry bag awkwardly over her shoulder.
Tai’s slumped on the bottom step. Numb. Cold. Wondering where to go.
She’s securing the fire door. Feeling guilty. Feeling sad.
She goes to the office. Stashes the laundry in a cardboard box. Unrolls her little air mattress, her Lilo. Inflates it. Wraps herself in the old sleeping bag. Takes a deep breath.
—No more mothering. No more mothering–
At the bottom of the fire escape, Tai hugs himself. And sobs.
But Jo and Gracie (we) are cosy. Music’s playing, one of Jo’s Nina Simone stints. She hums along, breaking into song now and then, rolls a smoke, coming down after a long day in the kitchen.
—Don’t look at me like that, Gracie. That was a one-off. You stopped.
—So. I started.
She puts it all away.
—No more for me tonight. No more for you.
She comes to stand beside me, making our hot drinks.
—That was horrible, what he did.
—What I did, too.
We share a wide grin.
Sometimes, I want to be a dyke. You need to know this from the beginning. I love her. And she loves me. We sleep together a couple of times a week, when I can’t get a lift, can’t afford a taxi. We kiss a little, and murmur. We touch a lot. We cuddle. But that’s it. The spark for more isn’t there. The pheromones. No light for either of us crazy moths.
Jo beats her wings against my evening.
I beat back.
—I’ll take my own revenge–
(She always wanted to protect me. I always wanted to deal with things myself.)
I hand her a cup. It doesn’t distract her. She glares. Stays on message.
—No. Send for me.
I shake my head. She reaches for her whisky bottle, changes her mind. Reaches for the brandy. Unscrews the top, gestures. Another headshake from me.
—Prefer a smoke.
Then I relent. I want to sleep.
We sip at the brandied hot chocolate.
Where did Jo, Vita, & Gracie come from?
When Beth died, I had no problem taking over the domestic stuff. We’d always shared it, (like the earning) and we enjoyed working together: cooking, cleaning, gardening, fixing up the house, and of course the child-care. Maybe that’s why I need less living space, so I notice Beth’s absence less. Anyway, afterwards, I offered the house to one of the kids with responsibilities, and moved to the bach at the bottom of the garden, and got used to being alone.
All of that’s fine now. But there’s some unexpected losses. I’m surprised that I miss the sense of the girls changing room at the periphery of my domestic life, feeding it. Beth and I met in primary school; I didn’t go into the girls changing room when we were nine, or ever. So she always had a separate life with her ‘girls’. It wasn’t secret, but she didn’t share many of those stories. And I had mine with the lads: rugby, pub, cards. And I didn’t share much either. There was some overlap with friends who visited the house, but otherwise almost all I heard about the ‘girls’ was when I came in and Beth was talking to one of them on the phone. She’d say to whoever it was, “Ah, here’s Ti. Gotta go.” But every so often there’d be a story or a fragment of a story. And now she’s not here I miss those fragments from the girls changing room. I wish I’d asked more questions. The women in Hemingway’s come from questions I never asked.
Nina Simone (Don’t Leave Me)