“GOT A JOB FOR YOU, Ruby,” Uncle said.
“What is it?”
“Cleaning an old woman’s house.”
“Will she be there?”
“No, she died. Can’t rent out the house til it’s sorted,” he said. “A hundred a day in the hand.”
“I’ll get my overalls.”
We drove along past renovated bungalows with new stone fences, and turned down a street leading to a cul-de-sac of shabby square-front cottages.
“Needs a coat of paint,” Uncle said. “First things first. Throw everything out, then we’ll fix it up.”
He drove off. I walked around a rubbish skip left on the verge and went up the path past a huge lemon tree with a plastic chair underneath. A silvery cat sat on the chair.
The cat jumped down, fixed its round gray eyes on me and began kneading the ground.
I opened the front door a crack. The cat slipped inside. The hallway looked as if the guts of an op-shop had blown in on a storm. Tiny flickerings caught my eye – things too small to be seen. I gave the door another push: a handful of white beads dropped to the floor. The beads unfurled then squirmed away beneath a blob of newspapers. I picked up the newspapers, squashing the maggots under my boot.
The sooner I got stuck in, the sooner I’d be done.
I filled the skip with bundles, books and broken bits of furniture. By lunchtime I’d cleared the hallway. I sat under the lemon tree eating a sandwich. The cat nipped at my ankle.
I put a piece of cheese on the ground. The cat turned up its nose.
The next day I brought milk for the cat, pouring it into a dish. It didn’t touch it. It followed me into a bedroom, silent as a fish.
I hauled a stack of boxes across the floor scattering cockroaches. I squashed as many as I could underfoot.
A bird whistled outside. An icy trickling feeling crept down my arms. I turned. The cat drew up, staring at the top box.
It didn’t move.
For some reason, I grabbed the box, setting it down on the floor and looking inside. Balled up sanitary pads! The cat leapt away as I strode off to the skip.
“Hoho,” said a man walking past carrying a miniature dog. “About time that place got cleaned up.”
“Did you know her?”
“Bitter cow. Slipped and fell on her arse. Should’ve been put into a home years ago.”
Grrrrr, said the dog. The man bent down, kissing the top of its head. “Good luck to you. You’ll need it.”
I went back inside. The cat waited by the boxes, it hissed when I picked them up. I was about to toss the lot when I noticed a bright blue embroidered flower on a rag stuffed in the box. I pulled the flower – it was the corner of a knotted cloth. I untied the knot and a pair of little woollen mittens dropped on the floor.
I knelt down picking up the mittens, folding them back into the cloth, leaving the bright flower on the corner just as the old woman must have done. The cat’s eyes were on me as I slipped them into my overalls.
I opened the bedside cupboard, dragging free a bundle of crepe bandages. Three pairs of secateurs tumbled out. Next came huge knickers, hairbrushes, a fur-lined slipper. Where was the other one? I was rummaging through socks and apple cores, when I felt a pressure at my back as if the old woman were actually standing behind me.
“How’s it going?” asked Uncle.
I swung around.
He laughed. “Didn’t mean to give you a fright. Thought you could do with a lift home.”
We went down the path. He inspected the skip. “Reckon we’ll get it all in one.”
I glanced back at the house, the cat was watching from the porch. “When’s the SPCA coming?”
“She didn’t have one.”
The following morning I went into her kitchen. It reeked of stale piss and cabbage. I opened the window, breathing in fresh air. Clouds swept past. Sunlight burst through. There was a flash behind me. I saw a glass vase on the table, it looked as if a candle was flickering inside. I picked it up. A gold change purse lay at the bottom. I unzipped the purse, turning it upside down. Four tiny teeth fell into the palm of my hand.
I stood stockstill, staring at them.
The cat swished against my leg, meowing.
“Jesus, god!” I dashed outside as if I knew where I was going.
I stopped by the lemon tree, quivering with cold, although it wasn’t a cold day.
The cat stood beneath the tree, kneading the ground.
I picked up a stick and dug. I lay the teeth and mittens in the hole, covering them over, patting the earth flat.
I rose and stepped back.
Sunlight soaked into me.
That night, a little girl came to me in a dream. “Thank you,” she said, and then she was gone.
Head in the Leaves
I REACHED THE RIVERBANK before Mum and crept under the willow tree we always sat next to. Sunshine shot through the leaves lighting golden cicada shells stuck to the trunk. I carefully plucked off the lowest one, the next highest, then gave a start. A man’s head trembled in the leaves, a shimmery see-through head that looked as if it had been made from jelly.
“Eric?” Mum pushed aside the branches.
I pointed at the head.
“What is it, love?”
Couldn’t even squeak a response.
“Best have a swim before afternoon tea.”
I rushed off.
“Not too deep, now.” She sat on the blanket and opened a book.
I waded in up to my stomach and felt chopped in two; my top half sweltered, my bottom half was so cold I couldn’t feel my feet.
When I looked, the head was still in the leaves.
I went in deeper, to my armpits, my neck – until I was just a head, too. Then I sank down and an oily brown silence covered me. I felt swallowed, drowsy. The current slowly spun me round…my chest burst and I thrashed to the surface.
I ran to Mum who wrapped me in a towel and hummed to me.
From that day onwards, the man’s head was always in the leaves like a piece in a picture puzzle.
“Can you see anything in the willow?” I’d ask playmates.
“Oh, nothing – thought I saw a nest.”
Then we’d run to the river. Around the curve to the left, the water pooled in rusty shallows. We’d look for elvers that sometimes slithered over the stones like strings of silver glue. Around the curve to the right, the water rushed to the sea, a hundred miles away, which I’d never seen. I’d sometimes stare at the vanishing point, wishing Mum and I could go there – even though my friends said men caught ten foot eels upriver.
Mum wasn’t a swimmer. She liked sitting by the willow, reading biographies of singers and composers.
Even in winter, when no-one else did, we went to the river. We’d huddle in our heavy jackets, noses turning pink, eating egg and parsley sandwiches. I’d throw my crusts at black swans who’d lumber over stinking of slimy reeds.
I always felt the head watching us.
I’d walk along the river’s edge until Mum was a dark dot.
It was icy on the plains in winter and in summer they were dusty and stunk of silage. If the wind came from the west, it brought the groans of cows and shrieks of fencing wire. If it came from the east, it brought the clickety-clack of the afternoon train. When you’re twelve years old, stuck in a small town, the loneliest sound in the world is the whistle of a departing train.
I’d trudge back to Mum, train wheels turning in my chest, wondering how on earth I would ever get to the city?
Mum did bookkeeping for local farmers. We were poor, yet she made me feel like we were rich. Her opera records, a stomach-sinking embarrassment in front of the other boys, felt luxurious when we were on our own. She’d stand at the sink peeling potatoes to Delibes’ Flower Duet. She’d neatly feed the stove with wood, shell peas and move the frypan back and forth to stop our lamp chops burning – all the while practicing trills, slowing down the two notes then gradually increasing the speed until the trill made me think of a hummingbird hovering in one spot.
She often mentioned my father – Bill planted the jasmine, she’d say. Bill bought the radiogram. Bill never warmed to Wagner.
She made it sound as if Bill was about to open the door and step inside.
Water off a duck’s back to me. He’d died before I was born.
Occasionally I’d look at their wedding photo in the lounge. His face was half-hidden, the brim of his hat shadowing his jaw.
Eventually, I got a scholarship to study engineering in the city.
On my last day in town, Mum had the flu so I walked to the station by myself. I passed Susan Frost outside the dairy. In a loud whisper, she turned to her friend and said, “His Dad topped himself down by the river.”
My head swam, but I put one foot in front of the other all the way to the train and climbed aboard.
The whistle blew.
The wheels turned.
My life transformed in the city.
I lived in a house of students. I went to lectures in the day and worked in a pub at night. I discovered nerdy girls – and that they were keen on nerdy boys like me.
Some mornings when I was shaving and the mirror steamed up, I’d draw the outline of my head in the mist. My heart would speed up. I’d think of going to see Mum.
She came up when I got my degree. “You’re launched, son,” she smiled and sang La Traviata’s Libiamo – mortifying in front of my flatmates.
A week later, she died in her sleep.
I caught the next train.
The house was overgrown by jasmine, it had tumbled through her bedroom window leaving countless flowers turning brown on the floor. The kitchen reeked of rancid butter and the fridge no longer shut. I couldn’t fill the jug because the sink was full of dishes soaking in grey water.
I was shocked at the degradation. How little help I’d been.
I trudged to the riverbank and glimpsed Mum sitting by the willow.
Trick of the light.
No head in the leaves, either.
I heard her singing the Flower Duet – long liquid notes that swept into a sustained trill, and pivoted back into melody.
I went closer to the water. Ducks turned in half-circles on the current.
Sunlight caught the river where it turned to the sea just as the chorus faded away.
Leanne Radojkovich was born in New Zealand and lives in Auckland. Her stories have been widely published online and in print, and have won or been commended in various competitions including Ireland’s Fish Short Story Prize and the National Flash Fiction Day NZ contest. She also shares her work on YouTube and SlideShare and posts flash fiction street art – PinUps – in phone booths, shop windows and public spaces. www.leanneradojkovich.com