3. A Cardboard Box


I.

There are many Polish women in Jo’s extended family group. Oldish now, and mostly unrelated. Orphans, the lot of them, who came from Europe at the end of the Second World War. Jo’s mum and auntie came together, hand-in-hand, thin, serious. Now they’re plump. And full of laughter that spills over into their monthly City Radio programme.  Jo loves them all. So she pops round to City Radio to deliver some food, to celebrate their five years of broadcasting. It’s late morning. And she’s a bit early. Too early for Vita.

Jo presses the buzzer. No response. But she can hear someone moving inside. So she thumps on the door. Loudly. And again. Puts down the box she’s carrying and uses both fists. She’s on her break, hasn’t eaten. And wants to.

Vita’s surprised to hear the buzzer. It’s a while before anyone’s due. She has to hide her domestic presence. Lilo and bedding into the unused cupboard in back room. Toilet and makeup stuff onto hooks behind cupboard door. (No problem in kitchen, always food around.) Who the fuck’s banging so loudly?

—Coming, coming–

She kicks the clothes box behind some old sound-tape cartons.

Opens door.

Vita blinks. A chef? In whites? With a big box of food?

Jo blinks. Major bed hair? Have I got the wrong door? There’s the sign on the wall. There’s the buzzer. The place to swipe an electronic card if I had one. Of course it’s the right place.

Each woman opens her mouth.

In the kitchen, Jo places her box carefully on the bench, pulls aside Vita’s black-out curtain and points out the window, towards the back of Hemingway’s.

—There, she says, that’s where I work.

She indicates the fire door, there by the kitchen bench.

—If I use your fire escape I can cut across your back yard into ours. OK? Have to get back now if not sooner. Big day.

Her hand grabs the metal bar that opens the door.

They exchange tentative smiles.

Jo pulls down on the metal bar. The door flies open. She makes up her mind.

—We have a set menu. Pre-theatre.

Vita hooks back the blackout curtain.

—I go straight home after work– Lyall Bay. Maybe one weekend–

Jo opens the tall corrugated iron gate at the end of City Radio’s yard. It’s stiff and it creaks. (Like Vita’s lie.) It sticks, and it screeches when Jo boots it open and then shut. In the old shed on the other side of the City Radio yard, out cold in his favourite corner, Tai stirs.

II.

Vita props the fire door open. Just a little. Opens the kitchen window. Peeps in the box. Yum. Moves the box to the tiny table. Runs water for the dishes. Realises she hasn’t brushed her hair. Leaves the dishes. Gets her gear from behind the cupboard door. Goes into the tiny rest-room.

III.

Staff break’s ending at Hemingway’s. Norman’s out the back having a fag. The others are… In the toilet. Texting. Checking out the fridge. Lighting a hob. Gracie knits frantically. Reads the paper at the same time. Cranky.

—This isn’t working. I’m thinking smoke smoke smoke.

Jo wants to talk about Vita.

—What’s she doing, living there? She’s running the place. But it’s offices and studio space. Where would she sleep?

—Pursue her. Then she can sleep with you.

Gracie turns a page. Awkwardly, hanging on to her needles. Jo grabs the moment.

—Those beautiful clothes. She can’t be poor. But creeping to and fro on that fire escape?

—Shut up. I’m reading. Who cares?

—I’m curious.

— Then Do Something about it. Or Knit. Or Have a Smoke.

Gracie knits faster. Dying for a smoke, herself. Jo goes out the back door. Norman grinds his butt underfoot. Grins. Holds out his pack. She shakes her head. Norman goes inside.

IV.

Vita comes back into her kitchen, ready for the day. One community group after another till late evening. And there’s Tai, eating one of Jo’s pierogi, a mazurek in the other hand.

—Thought you might need a hand with something–

His eyes are bloodshot. The black eye’s a bit green now, fading.

She shakes her head. She’s furious. And– What, a little frightened? The buzzer goes. The Poles.

—Out.

What’s that fear? He gives a little smile. And she knows, immediately: it’s THAT fear. He raises an eyebrow and turns to leave. And she thinks that somehow he knows, too. Her heart is CLOSED, and she’s keeping it SHUT. She will not love a beautiful boy again.

V.

Jo leans against the Hemingway’s doorway, looks up at Vita’s fire escape, propped open.  Looks away, thoughtful. Reties her apron. Settles herself to start work again. Looks back at the fire escape, sees Tai slip out the doorway. Who’s he? She sees him dance down the steps. A little awkwardly. Is he wincing? Holding something. Taking a bite. Jo squints: Surely not.

Norman’s voice: Jo!

VI.

Vita pulls the door to the fire escape wide open and calls after Tai.

—You didn’t need to take both!

At the bottom of the steps, turning towards the street, moving on to the mazurek, he acknowledges her with a wave, indicates the mazurek. Shouts.

—Awesome!

He doesn’t look back, moving a little awkwardly towards the street. Vita moves to slam the door.

Then notices the stains on his back, and on the arse of his designer jeans. Blood?

The buzzer goes again. She shuts the door. Carefully.

_____________________________________

NOTES

Cardboard box teapot

Back in the 1970’s Chinese teapots were packed in cardboard boxes, for both local sales and exports. This Lu Wen Xia (Yixing) teapot imitates those boxes. See more of Lu Wen Xia’s teapots here.

Polish children in New Zealand

This short film tells the story of Polish children who came to New Zealand after the Second World War.

Mazurek

We had a neighbour who arrived in New Zealand from Poland as a child. At Easter she’d make mazurek (and at other times sometimes she’d drop over with pierogi.) I imagine that Jo would decorate her mazurek to suit the occasion.

Lilo

Vita got hers from Para Rubber: $5.99.

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