Apr 23, 2023 Books
He reminded her of one of the vampires from True Blood, tall with high cheekbones and an intense stare. He overwhelmed the room. Something about the decisive way he moved around it too, getting things done. The rest home always smelled of antiseptic and death and the television was always on. His uniform fitted him a little too tightly, blue collared shirt stretched over his torso and his trousers taut over his arse, which was a good arse, Anahera could tell. A large tā moko on his arm was nearing completion. It just needed a bit by the wrist, and it looked like it’d be a complete sleeve. If he remembered her, he wasn’t letting on, though with masks on it was harder to recognise faces. “There we go, Carol,’ he said to her mum. ‘Nice clean sheets, and you’ve got a visitor.”
‘So where are you from?’ Carol asked him. Anahera put down her bag and looked around for a vase for the flowers she held in her other hand. ‘Where did you go to school? Where do your parents live?’
‘Hi Mum. Sorry I’m late.’ She couldn’t seem to harden herself, despite everything she now knew about dementia. She took a sand- wich out of her bag, straightened up, and smiled. ‘I just need to eat something.’ And curl up in a corner to die. Plenty of time for that later, though.
Her mother lifted her face in Anahera’s direction.
‘You sound tired, love.’ Her mother’s hands were bruised again. She bruised so easily. ‘Doesn’t she?’
‘I am a bit tired. Hi there,’ she said.
‘Hi.’ He handed her a jar. ‘Will this do the trick?’
She nodded. ‘I bought you some daphne from the garden at work, Mum.’
‘I could smell it coming up the hall,’ Carol said. ‘Lovely.’ Her mum lost her sight three years ago, and perhaps because it happened gradually, took it in her stride. The onset of dementia two years ago is the reason she came here.
‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ Anahera said, arranging the daphne in the jar. ‘We know each other, don’t we? From Eastern?’ The poor bloke, it was a barrage of questions. She’d always asked a lot of questions — even as a kid. Carol used to invite a kid over to play in the morning, then arrange another one for the afternoon. Na would interview them in the tree house while her mum did the jobs.
He looked a bit embarrassed. He had recognised her. ‘I wasn’t sure. Anahera, isn’t it?’
‘It is, yeah. But everyone calls me Na. And you’re—?’
‘That’s it, of course. I didn’t think they’d be employing anyone new, given what’s happening.’
‘I’m a social worker. They’ve brought me in to support clients during the transition.’
‘I hate every one of you cunts in here,’ Carol said.
Na stayed quiet, but Shaun laughed loudly. Then Na laughed too, and it made her mother smile. Na couldn’t bring herself to tell her mother she would have to move again. There was no point, not yet. Na’s mum had no short-term memory and had made friends in the rest home, after a challenging move. They’d spent a lot of time looking for a suitable place and now had to find somewhere else, at short notice, in the middle of a pandemic.
They’d announced the closure via a pre-recorded webinar. On the screen behind Daryl, the manager, was a carefully arranged vista: a healthy fern, daylight through a partially open window. The walls of the real office were yellowed with age, something Na noticed each time she went in there to discuss her mother’s care. Every few months since Carol moved here, the Board announced that they were working on getting a new building — then, there was no room in the budget. Despite the lovely backdrop, Daryl in his uniform black polo gave the impression of someone who would rather be anywhere than delivering this news that the home had to close. They’d been given six weeks.
Na says, ‘You’re getting out, Mum.’
‘You are a great woman, a champion,’ Carol said.
‘Soon you’ll be back in your big chair in my front room and we will be making marmalade, Mum.’
‘Is it the season?’ Carol gripped Na’s hand tight.
‘Yeah, I think so,’ Na says, uncertainly. ‘That is just what I want.’
Na parked in the driveway and left the engine going, reluctant to leave the warmth of the car. It was the 1pm announcement and she waited to hear what was happening with the Levels. If they went up too much, she wouldn’t be allowed to visit her mum. Today, like most days, there were a dozen more cases. The council phoned earlier to say her mum was entitled to carer support, but as there weren’t any carers available, she wouldn’t be getting any. It was the sort of autumn day that was already winter. She could see Jon through the window, at his work- place in front of the computer. She closed the car door hard, not a slam exactly but firmly enough that he’d hear it, which he did. He looked up, he was on a work zoom. Jon was a life coach. The pandemic had been good for the life-coaching trade — Na wasn’t the only person who was lost this year — and he got to work from home.
Shadow was going mental at the door with the energy of an un- walked dog. Na went into the bathroom and washed her hands.
‘The human mind is very simple,’ Jon was saying. She’d heard this more than once.
When she came out, he was finished the call. She put her bag down on the floor by his chair and stood behind it. The shape of his back was beautiful. She touched his neck. The night her girlfriend introduced them, Jon told her how he’d been a sunglasses model for Kirks before he became a life coach. It had surprised Na that they got along. She’d just finished her final med school exams and had apologised for hardly keeping her eyes open.
‘Did you hear the update?’ She rifled through a pile of unopened bills.
He nodded. ‘My noho marae will go ahead, then.’
‘I’d like some fresh air. Shall we take Shadow for a walk before dinner? He looks like he could do with one,’ she said pointedly. Hearing the word, Shadow thumped his tail. He was a large mongrel who Na inherited when her father died in Auckland Hospital three months ago. It wasn’t written down anywhere, but her brother said he’d die too if he had to take Shadow. It was her brother who was paying for the rest home for their mum, so it felt like the least she could do. She and her brother weren’t always on the best of terms. She wondered if he paid for the home so he wouldn’t feel guilty about living so far away.
‘Can we eat first?’ He clutched his stomach. ‘I’m starving.’
She untucked herself and started to unbutton her uniform. ‘Actually, babe, do you mind if I don’t come for a walk?’ he said. ‘I’ll make a start on dinner. But, also, can you deal with the dog hair on the bed? It’s next level.’
‘He might cry less if you took him out during the day, Jon. I didn’t even stop for lunch today.’
‘Ok, OK, relax, I’ll do it,’ he said.
She had started taking Shadow to bed with her — with them. If they left him outside, he would cry. Jon relented to him sleeping on the floor beside the bed, but Shadow just waited till Jon was asleep then jumped up. In the morning the duvet cover was always covered in dog hair and Na would promise to change it, but then would forget.
‘Nothing to stop you changing it, you know,’ she said. Whenever he did any housework, he made a thing of it. When they met two years ago, he didn’t care at all. He was low maintenance, which Na liked. His laugh was loud and sudden, and he was always cheerful. He was always bringing her things, a piece of polished glass or a stone the exact colour of her eyes.
‘I just said I’d do it, babe. You really need to pace yourself,’ he says, though it wasn’t clear how she should do that. ‘It’s crazy to skip lunch.’ She thought about the work roster and how many hours she’d done that week. How it was an antisocial roster, how that didn’t matter anymore now that the world was ending. Everyone was being more careful than usual, she had nowhere she needed to be, except now, here with Shadow. Everyone felt the loss, but it was worse for Shadow. She understood death more than most people, but since her father’s death last month there seemed to be a question mark over everything. Normally, getting a dog pre-empted a baby. Na remembered how casual she was in the beginning.
‘There’s no rush. Once we have a kid, that’ll be it.’
Whatever it was. The casualness had been replaced by three failed rounds of IVF, then a decision to give her body a break. And a five- month separation, after which they’d both admitted they missed each other. Living alone was surprisingly satisfying — if she tidied up the flat and then went out, it was still tidy when she got back. But she’d be forty-two next year — the cut-off age for funded treatment. No doubt it was a mistake — she was too late, had waited too long. The baby wasn’t coming.
Their flat was small but Shadow was big. Jon loved her but hadn’t signed up for this. Maybe she was doing that thing people did when people died or left, of needing to change things up, make it different. The main consequence of having Shadow was that it made Na think about her father all the time. Shadow couldn’t be left alone. She patted him, felt his ribs through his fur. How could it have happened so fast? Out of all the things that might have happened, why did life throw this at her?
The operation, to fix a complication from earlier bowel cancer surgery, was a success, but her father’s recovery quickly became messy. Each day seemed to bring a new problem, and with community numbers of coronavirus infections rising, there was nothing to do but wait. They wouldn’t let him drink, either. Her dad got better, then worse. Their phone calls, possible only with a nurse’s help, were brief and often muddled.
One morning, Na woke to find a voice message from the hospital. He’d gone. All those years without him, then she’d lost him again. It didn’t seem fair. She’d visited every so often over the years, but she hated being around him when he was drunk. Then a year ago, he’d decided to try and stop drinking. He admitted himself to a Salvation Army rehab programme. They became friends.
The truth was she wanted to establish the sort of intimacy with Shadow that he’d had with her dad. Her Dad took such good care of him, it was the least she could do.
‘Just get to know each other,’ she’d repeated. Jon had agreed to keep Shadow company during the day while she was at work. Shadow would curl up under Jon’s desk.
‘I’m not sure you should be sleeping with a hundred people,’ she said. ‘With Covid.’ She removed the pillowcases. She didn’t remember them being that filthy.
‘Not with,’ he laughed. ‘If they’re letting you into the rest home…’
‘You could get a motel.’ She was like the voice of Covid 19.
‘Look, if you’re really worried, I won’t go.’ He was really trying with te reo, he deserved credit for trying. She wished he’d just focus on everything else he was good at and quit humiliating her.
‘Listen, by the time you come back, I’ll…’
‘You’ll what? Have left your job? Have re-homed Shadow?’
Na wrapped her arms around Shadow. Have put all your shit in boxes on the driveway she doesn’t say. She knew what he wanted her to say. But she knew how attached Shadow was to her dad, and she’s the next best thing.
‘Listen, I found this.’ He read off his screen. ‘It is possible that the high prevalence of separation distress and other anxieties in the mixed breed dogs is caused by a poor early life environment and adverse experiences in life, as many mixed breed dogs in our data are likely rescues.’
They couldn’t even give her dad a proper tangi. Her father’s ashes were in a cardboard box, in a bag, on their bedroom floor. She wanted to tell Jon to buck his ideas up. It wasn’t as though he was allergic, and she worried about Shadow out in the cold. Jon’s parents were still together and the way they treated her made her suspicious. If they’d met her in another context, they wouldn’t have given her the time of day. They weren’t snobs exactly; she just wasn’t part of their world. Last week his mother had said ‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through,’ — a sentence Na was hearing a lot, and one that she rejected. You could imagine it if you tried hard enough.
She dressed in leggings and a sports bra. She grabbed an old T-shirt of her dad’s which was huge on her, that smelled less and less of him. At the back door, she pulled on boots and a jacket. She put Shadow on the lead, and they walked to the end of the street, and through a gate onto a field. Somehow, making her body pretend she was in a good place tricked her brain into going along with it. Two kilometres away, her mum would be having her dinner in the home. She let Shadow off. He ran ahead, although she was walking quickly. They did the same loop before work every morning. In the strange, shut-down landscape of lockdown, the empty streets made it feel as if everyone else was in mourning as well. She’d started thinking of it as her grief walk. Some- times she sat for a while on a fallen tree, her breath clouding the air while Shadow explored, waiting to hear his name. The first lockdown was fine. Having no kid meant there wasn’t any big deal with her many lives layering on top of each other in a confined space. She only had two lives, three at the most. At work and home, and out here, walking. She and Jon did the usual things to stay sane when confronted with seemingly endless periods of time and no real social life: jigsaws, tak- ing too long to cook dinner, rewatching The Wire. But then something started to creep in, and then her dad got ill. She and Jon found new ways to irritate each other. Her feet seemed heavier on the walk back.
Later, they lay in bed. Jon reached out and touched her hand. She moved closer to him, and Shadow jumped up, pushing his nose between their faces.
‘Na,’ he said, taking his hand away. She looked into Shadow’s soft eyes that seem to care about her and know what she’s going through and seem to tell her it’ll be okay. She was still loved.
‘I’ll put him out.’
‘I’ve been thinking about what my dad said at our engagement par- ty,’ she said, getting back into bed, facing him. ‘About marriage being a pointless thing.’ She could hear Shadow panting through the door. Her dad’s speech sounded like it would be great, then it wasn’t. He finished by saying that when he married, in 1973, he hoped his children would never feel they had to participate in something so pointless.
Jon stared at her intently. ‘Babe, can we talk about something else?’
‘Ok, sorry.’ She’d replayed that moment over and over, in her mind at that moment when she had told her dad to go fuck himself. The week before he died, they’d argued via text, something about how she never visited him anymore. She was unfair to him, too.
Now she and Jon lay in bed not talking. After a while, she slipped her hand under the elastic of his boxer shorts. He moaned appreciatively. He kissed her, gently at first, then a bit roughly, and she couldn’t help feeling like he was marking his territory. Shadow barked.
He stopped kissing her. ‘There must be somebody else who could—’ he said.
‘Jon,’ she says. ‘There isn’t.’
They kissed again and he barked and when they stopped, he stopped barking.
‘Fuck’s sake, Na.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry your sex life is being impacted,’ she said. ‘What, you don’t fancy a threesome?’
‘He’s still bloody doing it,’ Jon said. ‘And no, I don’t thank you.’ ‘Who’s still doing what?’
‘Your dad. He was always winding me up.’
‘Oh, come on.’ It’s true, her dad enjoyed showing Jon up. Not always in a mean way, exactly, although it was obvious in the little things he said that he thought Na could do better.
‘I need to get to sleep. I’m obviously not getting laid tonight.’ Then he said, ‘I need you to promise me something. Promise we won’t talk about the dog anymore.’
‘This isn’t working,’ she said.
‘No shit. I’m glad you realise it.’
‘I don’t mean Shadow. It’s just not there. You’re not here.’
He made suggestions, listened, then argued his part tactfully — slipping into life coach mode. As he laid out plans, discussed new strategies, Na realised something fundamental had shifted in her over the last few months, unnoticed by those around her.
She pulled the sheet over her head and lay very still. Shall we talk about my mother coming to live with us? How does she explain it? It’s like she’s unmoored. You can’t hold onto me, she wants to say. Then she got up and went into the kitchen. She ate a cracker with hummus for no reason, then poured an orange juice. She stood in front of the fridge looking at the photo of her mother, held there by a magnet which said, ‘The trees that are slow to grow bear the most fruit’. Her father gave her that when she graduated medical school. In the photo her mother was young and smiling. She was wearing a white top and cuddling a real koala bear. Her mother loved animals. Her mother loved many things; or did, before she got dementia — cooking, Bob Marley, all children, flowers, marmalade. Their determination to do the right thing by their mum meant in fact that they did the worst possible thing, moving her away from the home she knew well to a new and unfamiliar environment, and now moving her again, in the space of just two years.
Had she ever been this tired before? Everyone said grief was exhausting, but no one talked about the dread that came with knowing how tired she’d be again tomorrow. When she slipped back into bed, she found Shadow hiding under the duvet.
‘Is she looking too thin?’ Carol said to Shaun. ‘I suspect she’s not eating properly.’
‘Mum,’ she said, embarrassed. ‘I’m just going to have a word with the manager.’
The walls of the office appeared even yellower.
‘Daryl, she said, do you have a minute?’
‘Sure thing,’ Daryl said. He closed the folder he was looking at and gestured to a chair by the door.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘and you know I hate to do this, but—’ Here it comes. ‘Mum’s got bruises again.’
Daryl’s smile was a thin line.
‘I just wondered if you knew anything about them.’
‘As you might have heard, Na we’re really struggling to cover the shifts at the moment, and — did you meet Shaun, our social worker?’ ‘I’m not having a go, Daryl. It’s very possible she’s banging into things. I’m only letting you know.’
He nodded. ‘OK.’
‘How’s it going with the Board?’
‘I’ve been here too damn long for this kind of nonsense. They can’t pull this shit,’ he said. ‘Six weeks’ notice! It’s people’s lives we’re talking about. What’s it like at the hospital?’
‘We could use some help there, too.’
A sympathetic look crossed his face. Then he was telling her about empty buildings near the old train station, a new home they’re planning on setting up there. He was dreaming, surely.
‘We’re watching some blocks down there,’ he said. That’s what he’d been doing yesterday, scoping out a new potential development. After all these months of isolation, with everything closing down, the need for a different life hadn’t gone away: it was the opposite, people were clinging on.
She headed towards her mum’s room in the annex, the only room avail- able when they’d come to look at the home. It was out of the original building and down an L-shaped extension on the back. She passed a stressed looking cleaner pushing a cart full of cleaning supplies, then another staff member helping an elderly man into a chair.
Today, she’d brought some audio books from the library. Shaun has had more tā moko work done on his wrist since her last visit: an immaculate koru unfurling against his brown skin. Where she came from, everyone was pale.
‘The strangest thing has happened,’ Carol said. ‘I can’t remember how I got here.’ She looked through Na when she talked. She was restless, less agreeable than twenty minutes ago.
‘Sol and I drove you,’ Na said. ‘We brought you here.’
When her mum first started to lose it, Na had wondered how she would survive in this new dimension. But in a lot of ways, her mum coped better than she did.
Carol looked relieved. ‘I knew you’d know the answer,’ she said. ‘Are you close to your family?’ Na asked Shaun.
‘My mum passed suddenly five years ago. A lot of my friends and family thought I’d go off the rails, go back to drinking.’ He paused. ‘I still sometimes expect a text from her with a joke or the lyrics from an eighties song.’
‘Because it’s everywhere, in the papers, on TV, it’s a constant …’ Na swallowed hard.
She told Shaun about the last time she saw her dad. ‘It was in Auckland, during the first lockdown. I drove up there then drove him in for the op, but you know, Covid protocols, no visitors allowed on the ward of course. They told me to phone when we arrived at the hospital, and someone would meet us. But my phone wouldn’t work in the carpark. It was emergency calls only. So, I had to run up two floors of ramps, dodging traffic, until I got some reception and could make the call.’
She realised she hadn’t talked about it in months.
‘I wasn’t allowed to be with him the day he died either, say goodbye.’
She wondered if he’d be a selfish lover. She wanted him to be selfish. She imagined bringing her free arm up and touching his face with her fingers. Removing his mask and drawing a track down his jawline.
‘I haven’t cried since he died,’ Na said. ‘You can’t cry when no one can hug you. Too awkward. Oh, I watched a film a couple of nights ago and I cried. But that was because of the film. He would have liked it.’ She wanted to be somewhere else with him, an empty room or the beach or anywhere but here. She imagined a version of him, and one of her, not here in this stuffy room with her mother. Walking along the beach, hand in hand, fucking in the staff toilets. Generally, she felt numb, but around Shaun she had these feelings that manifested in fantasising about having sex with him. They were cautious around each other, as though pain was contagious, as though keeping a distance would make the loss smaller. Yet it was the nearness of things, of Shadow, her mum, that was all that mattered. It was the littleness. The compassion was in a nod, a smile, gentle tokens.
‘Some days I’m ok,’ she said. ‘Then other days I go into total meltdown. Sometimes it feels like you’re living in an alternate reality to others.’
‘Did you?’ she asked. ‘Go off the rails?’
‘Actually, the opposite happened and I just said to myself, I’m going to go for this, I’m going to jump off and see what happens.’ He smiled. ‘That’s when I started my degree.’
‘I miss our conversations,’ Carol said, and gave a funny sounding laugh. ‘He always talked so much in the morning. I can’t stand the silence.’ Na’s parents separated when Na was three. Then there’s the weird thing where her mum changes, her face clouding over. She’s realised she’s having trouble understanding.
Na thought about what Jon had said in bed last night about her dad still winding him up, how easy it was to let him think she was just preoccupied with work. And she was, a lot of the time. He understood that her work was vital, that any conversations with colleagues were necessary. Shaun wasn’t exactly a colleague, but when it came to Carol’s care, it was important to be on the same page.
‘I don’t understand at all what is going on here,’ Carol said. Suddenly, none of it made sense. ‘What’s happening here? How did I get here? What’s happening?’ She buried her face in her hands. This was how it was, something happened, and all of a sudden someone had to care for her, just like an infant. And she yelled things, swore, and sometimes scratched.
‘Na is here, Carol,’ Shaun said.
‘You’re all liars. That isn’t. Anahera. You think I don’t know who Anahera is? Well, I do and that isn’t her.’ She stared at Na. Na felt the air around them shimmer, as though they’d entered a new dimension. The tears welled up. This person was a different version of her mother.
Shaun could see Na was shocked. Carol had never not known her.
‘When there’s not much to talk about, we talk about you,’ he said, looking her in the eye.
On Shaun’s recommendation, Na stopped at the vet shop, where she bought a pair of rubber gloves, and some hypoallergenic dog shampoo.
She got into bed with Shadow. She reached for her phone to see if Jon had texted, but there were no new notifications.
Emma Hislop (Kāi Tahu) is a Taranaki-based writer. Her work has appeared in literary journals and anthologies in New Zealand and overseas, and in 2021 she received the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary. Ruin is her first collection of short fiction, and will be published with Te Herenga Waka University Press in April 2023. She is currently working on a novel.