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Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows

This Strange Cold Town

page 72

This Strange Cold Town

I stuck my feet in the oven of the coal stove and opened my book. I was renting an old house in a strange, cold town. My daughter was asleep in her bedroom off the kitchen. She was five. Her mother had just killed herself.

I like a coal stove. You can dry your clothes on the rack, warm your feet in the oven, and keep the teapot hot. I looked at the red glow in the grate, heard the ashes falling soft into the pan. The kettle began to sing. I shoved it to the back where it fell quiet, a violin string winding down.

My daughter called out in her sleep. I tiptoed into her room. She had one arm outside the blanket. I tucked it in. I'd had a go at making cheerful curtains for her window, but they didn't fit too well. When I drew them tighter, the night outside was dark; the glass was cold on my knuckles.

I put the kettle over the ring, made a cup of tea, read for an hour or two, and woke. The book was in my lap. I had gone to sleep in my comfortable chair in front of the stove, feet in the oven.

My daughter must have called me. She often did that, or she'd pad out and stand silent beside my bed till I woke and found her there, feet cold as linoleum. I'd pop her into bed beside me, put her feet on the hot water bottle and, in the morning, she wouldn't remember how she got there.

But she hadn't called out. Or she'd gone back to sleep. I found where I'd been reading and heard the sound again. The kitchen door into the gloomy front passage was closed. As I looked the doorknob turned. I tiptoed across. The doorknob turned further. I put my foot against the door, kicked it hard.

A neigh of agony. I shouted with fright and rage. A tall man stood in the passage, a black stocking over his head, holding his nose in both hands. He'd sneaked in through the unlocked front door. He'd gone through the two front rooms and was trying the kitchen door, turning the knob slowly, when it flew open and smashed his nose. He ran, whinnying in pain. I ran after, shouting.

He jumped the front gate. I jumped after. He ran down the street, across Tinakori Road, down the asphalt zigzag between the pohutakawas and Thorndon Quay and, shouting for help, I ran after. He dodged between cars going home from the pictures, and I dodged after him. The neighbours must have heard me yelling. Somebody in the cars would see me chasing the man in the mask.

He ran under the flyover being built across Thorndon, part of the new motorway. In the gritty air beneath that concrete sky he turned, stood his ground, and hefted a length of reinforcing steel like a spear.

'Come and get me! Try your luck . . .' Voice nasal and muffled by the stocking, he took aim. Behind him I could see the huts and lights of the single men's camp in the railway yards, the other side of the flyover. He was on his territory. As I was off mine.

The lights of the cars were a solid white band. None of the neighbours had come to help. Nobody stopped their car. I thought of my daughter alone inside the house, its front door wide open in this strange, cold town. I looked down, saw I was in my socks and was scared.

I turned and ran. The man in the mask snorted and flung the reinforcing steel. I heard the whicker as it flexed through the dark air, the whine as it clanked off something and buried itself, grating into a heap of shingle beside me. I whirled, pulled it out, spun myself around a couple of times and let go. Whop! whop! whop! like a chopper coming up a valley. There was a flump and the second shriek I'd heard that night.

I didn't wait to see if he was injured, nor if he was going to throw it back. I didn't want to be killed under a half-built flyover in a strange town. Just wanted to make sure my daughter was safe. I ran between the cars. Several swerved. A couple tooted. None stopped. I ran up the zigzag, across Tinakori Road, up the street to where light poured through the front door, spilled across the road.

My daughter lay asleep, one arm outside her blanket. I tucked it in, put a shovel of coal on the fire, shoved the kettle over the ring, made some tea.

What if the man had speared me? What if a car hit me? What if somebody else sneaked in the open door, my daughter asleep and alone?

I stood at the front door and stared at the other houses in the narrow, elbowed street. Not one neighbour had come to help. I glared at their windows, locked the door, took my daughter out of her bed, and put her into mine. I filled the hot water bottle from the kettle, wrapped it in my pullover, put her feet on it, and went to bed myself.

I lay beside my daughter, looked through the dark, and thought about our life in the strange town. On Thorndon Quay below, a siren screamed.

Next morning, I took my daughter down the asphalt zigzag between the pohutukawas, across the road, and along the footpath beside the flyover where last night I had turned and run from the man in the mask. There was frost on the pavement and, tingeing the white crystals, a swathe of what looked like blood. My daughter held my hand. The wind was from the south, wolfish as we walked through the strange town.

'We'll get to know the place better,' I said. 'I read a story last night about the zigzag we just came down, a story by a girl who lived just up the road from us. Come on, we'll look for a park.'

My daughter held my hand and skipped. 'Will there be a slide and swings?' she said. 'Will there be friends?'

'There's bound to be,' I told her. Already, she was getting used to this town.