I wake up to a quiet room.
The morning light seeps in through tired curtains. The faint pattern of roses seemed so much more vibrant just yesterday. I listen out for my morning symphony of native birds, but they seem to have all decided to sleep in today. Even Cary’s husky breath is missing from the room. That’s nothing new, he’s often up before the sun. I would be left in total silence if it wasn’t for that humming noise from somewhere in the distance. Probably one of the neighbours getting an early start on their lawns.
As I wipe the sleep away from my eyes I have a quick look around me. My stomach turns as I take in the state of the room. Shameful! I pride myself on keeping a clean home. Why had I let it slip so? My daughter always teases me for being so old fashioned. Cleaning is just my thing. It helps me release that built up energy from sitting at a computer all day. Besides, Cary does his fair share around the house. I must remember to apologise to him for being slack. He works so hard and deserves a nice place to put his feet up. Before I tackle this room I’ll get up and make him a big breakfast. A good old English fry-up with extra tomatoes, his favourite. I could pick them right out of the garden, but wait, is it even tomato season right now?
There is an awful rumbling noise.
I know I won’t be able to relax until I find it. Perhaps the washing machine is on the spin cycle. It gets off balance with Cary’s heavy work jeans. When I go to check I discover that it is not even on. I try the lounge next and see something that doesn’t belong. A metal box that’s sitting in my favourite window, the one that overlooks the pōhutukawa tree. I haven’t a clue what that thing is, but it must be the source of the noise as I can feel it vibrating with its efforts. I try to figure out how you stop this monstrosity. There’s a bit of paper covering the upper right corner of the box. There are words on the paper but they appear all a jumble. Kind of like when you try to read a clock in a dream and it just doesn’t make sense. I move it aside. Ripping it off reveals some buttons underneath. I try each one until I find one that brings me silence.
I hear shouting that I can’t quite make out.
I must have been asleep as I can’t even think what was happening just a moment ago. A figure is rushing across the room right past me. What on earth is she carrying on about? She goes over to the window behind me which now contains an ugly metal box. After fiddling with the box it starts sputtering. I don’t think I like that sound. She bends down to the floor. She brings a bit of paper up to her familiar face, looks at it, rolls her eyes and releases a heavy sigh. My mother used to sigh just like that when she was disappointed in my brother Jimmy, which was all the time. That boy was always in trouble. Once he took Grandpa’s-
“What have I told you? Do not turn off the air conditioner,” she tells me sternly.
Where does she get off talking to me like that? Not liking her tone one bit, I shoo her off.
As it waves past my face, my hand catches my eye. Surely that thing doesn’t belong to me. It’s the hand of an old lady. Like a skeleton wearing a thin weathered leather glove.
“I have told you time and time again,” she pauses in between each word.
Like mum would talk to Jimmy.
“There was a note over the controls. It said ‘do not turn off’ in big block letters. Why did you turn it off?”
“I never touched that thing,” I say. “I don’t think I’ve ever even seen it. Did Cary put that in? That’s not like him. Here in New Zealand of all places? Completely unnecessary. Just open the windows.”
She’s looking at me with a sad little smile. Now that I have a moment to think it occurs to me I don’t know her name. I feel I should, and I’m embarrassed that I don’t. She’s our neighbour, isn’t she? Or one of Jimmy’s girlfriends? It’s hard to keep up with them! I decide to focus instead on the state of her.
“Why are you all damp? Did you have a swim?”
“No, it’s sweat. I was just outside. It’s hot. It’d be worse inside with the sun beating down on the roof all day. That’s why you have to leave the air on. Otherwise, you’ll turn it off, fall asleep and bake to death in your own house.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! ‘Bake to death.’” I scoff, “There is no need to be so dramatic.”
I hear a noise coming from the kitchen.
I turn my head toward it, but the arm of my chair catches my eye. The maroon fabric is worn right through so that bits of foam come spilling out like little clouds. We bought this chair, oh, it couldn’t have been too long ago. We really should complain. Everything is made so cheap these days. From China probably.
I look up and see my daughter Nikki fussing about in the kitchen. Normally she would let me take care of all that. She was never one for housework. Spent her whole childhood in her room on her computer. Brilliant girl. Domestic though, she was not.
“What are you doing my dear?” I ask her.
“Boiling water.” she tells me, not even turning around.
“Oh, yes. I’ll have some tea thank you.”
“Sorry Grams, no tea.” she says.
I look around, expecting to see my mother. It’s what Nikki always called her. Wait. Mum died before Nikki was even a teen. I feel an odd sense of confusion. Like I’m trying desperately to make a round peg fit into a square hole. What is happening?
Oh right. Tea.
“Oh. Well, send Cary to the store then. We should never be out of tea.”
She’s looking at me now. I try to make out her expression. She has a little half-smile but looks oddly sad at the same time. She brings me over some water and urges me to drink. I look at the glass.
“If this is water, shouldn’t it be clear?”
A deep sigh catches my attention.
It came from a girl lying across from me. Seeing her gives me a feeling of comfort. Why can’t I place her though? Trying to work it out is like trying to read a sign through a heavy fog. I open my mouth to ask her, but I get distracted by the couch she’s on. It’s seen better days, I’m afraid. I’ll have to talk to Cary about replacing it. He’ll say “if it works, it works”. Can’t stand to spend the money until the thing is in a pile of pieces on the floor. I have my ways of convincing him if I want something enough.
“What are you watching?” I ask, noticing the screen she is holding in front of her.
“Nothing. I’m reading the news.”
“Oh of course. I don’t care much for the news these days. It’s all too sad. I’d like to watch my soap. What’s it called? You know, the one with all the doctors. The really good looking ones.”
“The TV is broken.” she says flatly.
“Oh. Well, Cary will fix it.” I sigh and get up to go find him.
Someone is shouting.
A young woman looks angry. I sink back into my chair making myself small. I must have done something terribly wrong. Then I realise it’s not me she’s yelling at. She is on her phone. I try to make out what she is saying but she’s talking too fast and it all gets jumbled in my head. She tosses the phone aside and sits on the couch, crying. I feel a strong urge to comfort her, even though I’m not quite sure who she is. It doesn’t seem the time to ask though.
I go to sit beside her. I bet she had a fight with her boyfriend. Cary and I started dating when we were in high school and took ourselves all too seriously. Every bump in the road seemed like we’d have to scale Mount Everest to get over it. I would cry to my mother all night sometimes but the next day we were always good as new.
“Everything is going to work itself out my dear. It always does.” I tell her.
“No Grams. It’s not.” she manages to choke through the tears.
Grams? A violent sob brings me back to the situation at hand.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s not all that bad. What’s gotten you so upset?”
“Everyone is going” Her words are all broken.
Oh to be young and so full of emotion.
Everyone is going.
It sounds like perhaps there was a party she wasn’t invited to. Oh, that can really hurt. I remember when all my friends were invited to-
“I just don’t know what to do any more!” She closes her eyes for a moment placing her hands on her knees and shaking her head slowly from side to side. Once she has calmed herself, she takes my hands and looks me straight in the eyes. “I’m going to try and explain this to you one more time. Please, try and follow me.”
Her words are slow and clear, like she is explaining something to a young child.
“This town. It’s gone bad. Everyone is going down south where it isn’t so hot and dry. There are communities there that work together. They have local produce and it rains at least sometimes. It’s getting harder and harder to get any water here. We’re too close to the coast as well. Not much longer and the sea will be at our doorstep. The power keeps going out too. If it happens during a heatwave, I’m not sure that you can survive it.” I heard every word she said, but I can’t quite put them all together and make sense of it. I nod along reassuringly, as I feel it’s the right thing to do.
“But I can’t get you to come with me. I’ve tried so many times.” she continues. “We fight every time but you won’t budge. You have to understand that it’s the only way. We have to leave this house Grams. Go down South. Will you go?” She looks at me expectantly.
I look at her a moment and take it in. I think I understand. “You want to go on a trip? That would be lovely dear. Maybe at Christmas when we have the time off.”
“No, no. It’s fine. You aren’t working right now! It’s a great time. Let’s get our things together and be off-”
“Oh you know I’d love to, but you know how Cary is. He needs to plan everything to the tee.”
A look of panic sets in her eyes. “No Grams. Just us. A girl’s trip! It’ll be wonderful, I promise. Forget the packing. Let’s just get you in the car.” She stands and holds out a hand as if to help me up.
“Oh honey, I can’t go without Cary. I’m helpless without him. We’ve never spent more than a day apart.”
“Let’s just have a little drive then! Be back before Cary is even home.”
I look around the room. The thought of going with her unsettles me. It’s as if by walking out that door I’ll be leaving something behind I won’t be able to get back.
“No dear. Maybe later. After Cary is home we can all go.”
She puts her hands over her face and pulls them down slowly. “I can’t make you understand. I have tried everything!” she say, starting to pace back and forth. “I wish mum was here.”
“Oh, honey. I’ll make you some tea.” I say, surprised by the effort it takes to get out of my chair. My mother used to make me tea whenever I was sad. Maybe hers did the same. “You’ll feel so much better soon.”
She is shaking her head slowly. “There’s no tea Grams.” She goes over and looks out the window. I go to her and put a hand on her back.
“Oh, sweetie. I know things can seem dire at the time but it’s never as bad as you think. You just rest here, I’ll go tell Cary to go to the shops and get us some tea and whatever biscuits you like-”
“Cary is dead Grams. Since before I was born.”
I hear the words but my mind rejects them. Of course, he isn’t gone. I saw him just yesterday. We watched the rugby, didn’t we? I try and remember the game, but haven’t a clue who was playing. But I can picture his face smiling that big toothy smile of his at me clear as anything. I can hear his raspy voice asking if I want another beer. That had to be just yesterday.
She continues, still looking out the window. “And all the shops are abandoned. There is nothing here anymore. Just you and me.”
I feel a flush of anger and frustration. Why is she saying such rubbish?
“Nonsense!” I say, “Now stop being so dramatic you silly girl! It’s not the end of the world for god’s sake.” I stomp into my bedroom and slam the door behind me.
I hear a rumbling noise.
I’m sitting in my favourite chair trying to relax but that noise is putting me on edge. I must have an uneven load in the washing machine. Cary’s work jeans are so heavy that it easily unbalances it. I go to check, but the machine isn’t even on. After a search I find the culprit.
A metal box in the window.
I want to make it stop but I can’t seem to figure out how. A section of it is covered by layers on layers of duct tape. After a feeble attempt, I give up and go for the plug. More duct tape. There’s a note above it. I really need to focus on it to make it out. Leave me on.
I concede. Cary will explain this mystery to me. I call out for him but am answered with silence. I will have to wait until he’s back from his errand. I’m about to put the kettle on when I notice more bits of paper all over the place. The fridge, some pillboxes on the table, the front door. What a mess. One by one I rip them off to throw them away. Remember to eat, Take me in the morning, Stay Inside.
The last one is on Nikki’s bedroom door. It’s much longer than the rest and I can’t seem to get through the whole thing, just bits and pieces. Things like I’m sorry, I had to and I love you stand out. It’s signed Karrie. What an odd spelling. I wonder if it’s pronounced like Cary. Cary. That’s right, I have to clean up all these papers before he gets back. He works so hard and deserves a nice place to put his feet up.