Sport 2: Autumn 1989
Marion E. Jones — Shadow
Another damn Monday morning. I stumble to the phone. Hello. Hello.
Happy Birthday. It's my father. I have told them not to telephone New Zealand. Them is my father and stepmother. I cannot bear to speak her name. My father has never phoned before.
Thanks, I reply. I shiver in the dawn. Air shifting penetrates to my skin. My thin frock catches on something. Someone works quickly to secure a rope about my waist. A parachute opens. The fall becomes more gradual. The ropes beside us sway in the silence. Space surrounds the rocking. Soon the mist will turn to ice. Far below people move in and out through an open door. I am to go into that light among people I do not know.
Is it happy? he asks.
Not especially, I reply. I appreciate your contact. That, I think, is wrong. An invasion of my breathing space even now. After twenty-four years. Across eight thousand miles. Have you chosen, I find something to say, any photos yet? To send, as you suggested, from among your old negatives?
It's hard to tell with negatives. Everything is reversed, my father replies. I've been preoccupied.
I understand you've been under stress. Of course, with her illness. It does me no good to keep on understanding. I need the photos you took, as I've written, of my mother. All of them.
Do you have the professional photograph? he asks. The one that stood on the corner of your dresser?
It's vague, I hestitate. I think so. High up. Between the closet and the drawers. Something was always in front of her face. My mother's loose hair passes as a shadow from that time toward me through light beginning to soften the rooms. We moved from that house, I add, when I was seven.
And the studio photo of yourself when you were twelve? he asks.page 100
With plaits, I reply, and white bows. Yes. I look like a skinned animal.
She had faced away from the sun where she stood in the shadows cast by a leafy hedge. The hair was drawn back each side of the face. The Easter dress was sheer cotton, dotted swiss, small white dots on yellow. Grosgrain ribbon tied about the waist of a short gathered skirt. The puff sleeves had too much puff. The crisp material smelled of stiffening. Her stepmother had commanded her to stand still so the hem could be pinned in. That year was the only year for the next half century her birthday was to fall on Easter Sunday. They would have an Easter party, her stepmother had said. For her fifth birthday that Saturday afternoon. At nine o'clock on Saturday morning, she had to put on the new dress, new yellow socks and white shoes. Then undress again. The photo this time, her father had promised, would not take long.
On the sinkbench, she had looked up at the smooth shells. Each time the spoon lifted a boiled egg up out of the water, the shell was darker purple, orange, pink. Darker green, darker blue, darker red. She had not been allowed to watch for long. While she had her nap, the eggs would be hidden in the grass for the Easter Egg Hunt. Before her nap her stepmother had said she must take a bath.
Take off your clothes, Hurry up. Get into the tub. There is nothing to be afraid of. That day her stepmother had not forced the palm of her hand over the plug hole. The big fingers had not bent the little fingers over the drain. When the water sucked down on the Saturday noon of her birthday party, she had not screamed. She sat far back at the shallow end of the tub. Down the pipe the darkness was still there. Down there she would have to breathe water instead of air. Down there she could not get away from the darkness, the silence, the falling that had no end. She had begged to be allowed to stay awake on her birthday. No, after her bath and after her nap, the party would begin.
She had not known each child who came to the party would bring a gift. Or why each gift was put high up on top of a glassed-in bookcase. She could open only one gift, her stepmother had said, at the table. The other gifts must wait until after the children had gone.
At the table by each place, a paper cup held gumdrops. The drops were all colours sprinkled with grains of white sugar. She had never sat at the head of the table before. She did not eat her piece of cake. page 101The almond icing had tasted strange, strong and terrible. Special icing for her birthday cake, her stepmother had said, was to have been a surprise.
There would be a prize for the one who found the greatest number of Easter Eggs. The others ran off to look. She had stood in the middle of the lawn. You can't find even one egg, her stepmother had said, at your own party. Around and around she walking looking. Eggs in the grass, she had thought, must be pretty hard to see. Over there, her father had whispered, along by the hedge. Then the Easter Egg Hunt was over. She was the only one who had found only one egg at her birthday party.
Happy Birthday. My father is about to hang up at his end of the line. What does one say on someone's birthday? I do not ask why he thinks my birthday might be happy. Or whether he is happy today. Or whether, before I hang the receiver back on the hook, he remembers my mother died on my birthday.
Between the parking lot and the solicitor's office, I pass the Returned Servicemen's Association Centre. TO ALL THOSE WHO HAVE FALLEN IN THE SERVICE OF...The words never change. My birthday must have been a deathday for my father. Perhaps he telephoned instead of sorting the negatives.
From the street I walk up two flights. Unlock doors. Switch on lights golden against the dark blue dawn at the windows. Patches of snow lie cruelly along the tops of the hills that circle the city. At noon the walls of the buildings will tower sheerly over icy shadows in the streets below. Because of the phone call, I am an hour early. Suppose today spelling errors slip through...occasion, occasionally, regret, regrettable, reconcile, reconciled. Suppose by mistake I erase a tape before I type it. And if they lose confidence in me? Fear rises as I put out stapler, copy stamp, telephone books. In the chill I turn on typewriter, cassette player, adjust the earphones and listen.
LETTER TO...REFERENCE...NEW PARAGRAPH. We believe this country is hell bent...Anything that previously appeared as a subsidy is now unacceptable. Nevertheless mortgage funds are available subject of course to...We look forward to dropping down to see you when your ground temperature rises above zero.
REFERENCE: PROFILE ENTERPRISES LTD. You were always aware there would be insufficient funds in total to repay the mortgage advance. But you have gone a long way toward that. Kind regards.page 102
The receptionist arrives at nine o'clock heavy eyed as in a day-dream.
LETTER TO: Ms Jane Smith. REFERENCE: DEBT RESTRUCTURING. We enclose a note of our costs and disbursements and a full Statement of Account.
Absolutely miserable weather. Sylvia, Mr Rathbone's assistant, unwraps her scarf. Sylvia with the dark eyes, long skirts and graceful manner. I'm frozen, she says.
NEW PARAGRAPH. We had considerable difficulty obtaining insurance. Guardian Royal decided they did not want to know us anymore. Perhaps you would be kind enough to assist us to get a conclusion in this matter.
Mrs McClaggan! Mr Rathbone sttides from his office to the reception area. Lovely to meet you. Come this way, please. The door at the end.
Mr Rathbone's voice drones through the earphones. May we remind you that four o'clock on a Friday can be a trap for the unwary. There is a condition the Contract is subject to you arranging satisfactory finance by four pm on Friday the 24th of July next.
At five minutes to five o'clock, Mr Rathbone speaks into the telephone in Sylvia's office. You cannot imagine what I am looking down on from the second floor. Silence dangles from the other end of his line. Whether he hitches his trousers above the hip bones because they fit his previously larger waist, whether he hitches up his trousers because they fit the size waist he thinks he ought to have, is difficult to determine. I am looking down on a dead pig, he says, in the middle of Princes Street.
Horrible! Sylvia frowns, shudders and turns from the window.
I might add, Mr Rathbone continues into the phone. The pig is lying in the centre of a trailer. Hitched behind a ute. Stopped at the lights. The ute, when I move to the window to look down, pulls into the intersection. Then slows for oncoming cars. The pause wobbles the pig flesh. Which wobbles again as the right turn is negotiated.
That, I say, is absolutely disgusting. Blood had smeared the neck of the pig in a great red cloak about its shoulders. Mr Rathbone, I imagine, sends his shirts to the laundry. A clean shirt every day. As well, the latest styles. They must have bled that pig, I say to Sylvia.
On her eighth birthday, her father had told her he would build a swing. Very high. Out of four by four redwood timber. Redwood does page 103not rot in the ground, he had said, for a hundred years. He had sunk the legs of two triangles into holes he had dug. A horizontal beam joined the triangles across the top. Higher than the arbour he had build down the centre of the quarter acre city section. Simpler than the enclosures he had built for rabbits, chickens, cow and pig. Neighbours never complained. People did strange things during the war. Despite rationing, her stepmother had said they would have plenty of food. Before and after work, her father did the milking morning and evening.
Then her stepmother's father had shifted into the house to help with feeding, breeding and oversight of the young. One afternoon it had been impossible to imagine why that man had his hand under the cow's tail. The cow, her stepmother had explained, had not had a calf before. It was time to get that cow used to the idea of being pregnant. They did not want to hire the bull a second time.
She had never told anyone how the grandfather would stare across the dinner table at her body. By staring back into his eyes, she could stop him staring at her breasts. That man had a jowelly face. He chewed with his mouth open.
Early in the morning the squealing had begun. They had cut the vein the pig's neck. Her stepmother had said, Stay in the house. She had gone out anyway. Blood flowed down the pig's neck and body. Around and around the enclosure the pig ran in the path of its own blood. The squealing had pulled at her stomach, her lungs, her brain. A noose drew tighter against the gasping. The shadow followed behind, catastrophe clutching, falling through space, the cutting off, the darkness before oblivion.
Ropes were attached to pulleys attached to the frame of the swing. The arbour beams, her father had said, were too low. The men had pulled the body of the dead pig higher as they skinned the carcass, cut the flesh, sawed the bones. The guts spilled out on the grass. Meat on the kitchen benches piled up to be packed in plastic bags tied with string. The bags were stacked in boxes. The boxes were taken to a commercial freezing works to store the meat in rented drawers. For two days the house had smelled putrid with fat boiling to make soap the old-fashioned way.
She could swing again, her father had said, after he readjusted the ropes and put back the seat. He had washed the grass with water from the hose. By sundown the next day under the swing a strange damp smell was gone. She never felt dizzy the arc of the swing was page 104so wide. She sat in the swing and looked up at the sky. The ropes cast shadows across the scaffolding from which the pig had been hung.
At five o'clock in the afternoon in winter in Dunedin, ice gathers in the shadows on the stairways and along the footpaths. Out on the street I look across and up at the words, PERMANENT BUILDING SOCIETY. The framework of sashes stretch in a black grid across the fluorescence of lighted rooms on each of the eight levels. I think of the bones my father cannot bear to look at. The glow of my mother's flesh he dare not remember.
I fasten the collar of my coat as I pass the Centre, TO ALL THOSE WHO HAVE FALLEN...To all those, I think, who must pay to keep from falling...pigs, mothers, daughters. To all those who must obtain insurance to secure assets against falling. To all those who must restructure an inherited liability. To all those who must mortgage the present to the past to keep from falling.