Jane Seaford’s novel Archie’s Daughter was e-published by Really Blue Books in 2012. Her short stories have been placed, highly commended or short-listed in international competitions. Many have appeared in anthologies or magazines, or been broadcast on Radio New Zealand. She has also taught creative writing and worked as a freelance journalist.
Jane is the Guest Fiction writer for takahē 85.
“I believe that the best way to become a writer is to read and to write, write, write, write and write.”
Living in the Wrong Place
It will do, James thought, as the agent unlocked the door and they walked into a small hall. There was a flight of narrow stairs and two open doors, one leading into a living area, the other into a kitchen. There was a smell of new paint but the carpet was stained and the window panes were smudged and grimy.
“It will do,” James said walking into the living room, turning around, wanting to escape the tight uncomfortable feeling that had assailed him most days over the last few months.
“You’ve not seen it all, yet,” the agent said, jiggling the keys in her hand. “There’s a big bedroom upstairs, a bathroom, separate toilet, and a second smaller room. You could use it as your study.”
“It will do,” James said. Anywhere would do, as long as there was somewhere to sleep and somewhere to work. He followed the agent up the stairs. “When can I move in?”
“As soon as you like,” the agent said, shrugging, staring at James as if he was behaving oddly.
His mobile rang as he was driving home. He stopped the car and grabbed the phone. Melissa, he thought, “Melissa,” he said. But the call was work-related. An aggrieved client wondering when James would deliver the brochure he had been contracted to write. It was already a week late.
“Soon,” James said and was told that was not good enough. “Today would be best, failing that tomorrow at the latest,” the client said, his voice clipped as he went on about what he needed and what James had promised him. James stared out of the car window and listened. When the tirade had finished he said, “OK,” and ended the call.
That afternoon he arranged for the remaining furniture to be shifted to the place he had rented, sat at his PC and forced himself to finish the overdue brochure. When it was done, he was exhausted. After Melissa lost the baby when she was five months pregnant, he had felt unbearably sad for a few weeks. He had even cried. He had held Melissa and tried to comfort her. But the sadness had been replaced by a feeling, maybe emptiness or anxiety, which he couldn’t name or describe. Nor could he understand why he found it hard to do anything. Work slowed down, even getting dressed in the morning, cleaning his teeth at night became arduous tasks. When Melissa left, he did nothing for nearly a week. When she came to tell him that she would never be back, she also told him to stop feeling sorry for himself. She held herself aloof as she walked around the house deciding what she would take and what he could have.
“I’ve contacted an agent to sell it, but you can buy my share if you want to,” she said.
“No,” James said. They were standing by the doorway in the room they had begun to prepare for the baby. He reached for her hand but she pulled it away.
Finally the removal men left and James began the slow job of unpacking and organising his new home. After a while, he made a cup of coffee and took it into the small scrubby garden. He stood leaning against the back wall wishing he could feel normal, wondering if he ever would. Shouting came from the adjacent house and a door banged. James thought he could hear a child crying and he went to look over the low fence that divided his garden from the neighbouring one. A little girl was standing in the middle of the uncut lawn. She had bare feet and was wearing a long T-shirt that was too big for her and came almost to her knees. Her face was thin, dirty and tear-streaked, but she was no longer crying; her wavy hair was a dull gold and needed brushing. She stared at James and he was struck by the intensity of her look. There was something knowing, almost adult in the way she held herself.
“Who are you?” she asked, her voice husky.
“I’m James. I live here now,” he said. She continued to stare.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Maisie and yesterday was my birthday. I turned six. My brothers are Henry and Aaron.”
“I see,” James said. Not sure what else to say, not sure if he should carry on talking or go back inside.
“My mum’s cross with me today,” Maisie said. “She says she has too much to do.”’
“Ah,” James said. Maisie was standing still, her arms straight by her side.
A window opened in the next-door house and a woman shouted, “Inside now, madam. Your tea’s going cold.”
Maisie shrugged, a grown-up gesture. “I better go.” She turned and walked away.
That evening James heard more shouting from next door. A few screams, a woman crying, then silence. He sat up in bed, listening, wondering what he should do. Nothing, he decided.
When James went into the garden the following morning, bringing a chair to sit on and a cup of coffee, the woman from next door was pegging out washing. She was thin, dressed in leggings and a skimpy top. When she turned to nod at him he saw that her face was lined and sad. She came to the fence and put both hands on it. Her nails were bitten and the skin around then was raw and flaking.
“I’m Rose,” she said. “Live here with my man and three kids.”
James introduced himself. “I met your daughter last evening,” he added.
“You don’t want to take notice of her, she’s …” Rose stopped. A child had started to cry, making a strange guttural noise. Rose bent down and when she stood up again she was holding a little boy. He was pale, with almost white hair, his head nodded oddly as he wailed and his nose was snotty.
“Better take him inside,” Rose said and left. James peered over the fence. A plastic basket still full of damp clothes was lying on its side on the grass.
That day James managed to work on some of his assignments. Once he’d made a decent living as a freelance technical writer. In the late afternoon he heard children’s voices coming from next door and he went into the garden and over to the fence. Maisie was there and an older boy.
“Hello,” James said and Maisie came closer to him. He noticed that the washing had gone.
“Henry’s bossing me about. He wants me to play football,” Maisie said. Henry scowled. He had a big bruise on one of his arms. “Pete did that,” Maisie said pointing. Henry made a shuddering motion.
“Have you got juice in your house? Can we come and see you?” Maisie asked.
“You’d better ask your mum first,” James said.
“Well,” James said.
“She won’t mind,” Maisie said.
“All right,” James said. He went back into the house and let the children in through the front door.
“I have orange juice,” he said and poured each of the children a glass. When he’d finished his, Henry said he was going home.
“What about you, Maisie?” James asked.
“I want to stay. Does anyone else live here with you?”
Maisie was staring at him in that same intense way he’d noticed yesterday.
“Are you all right?” James asked.
Maisie frowned. “Course I am. You’re a funny man,” she said.
She nodded. “Pete’s not my Dad. Me and Henry have another Dad, but we don’t see him.”
“Is Pete nice?”
Maisie didn’t answer.
“I think it’s time for you to go home,” James said. “I’ll come with you.”
Maisie went straight inside, but James knocked on the door.
“Who is it?” a man yelled.
“Your new neighbour. Thought I’d come and introduce myself.”
The man came to the door. He was tubby, with a big shaven head and tattoos on his arms. James gave his name and the man said he was Pete. He scratched his chin.
“You must come over for a beer some time. Not now, fiancée’s not too well.”
That evening James ate pasta with a supermarket-made sauce and thought about the people living next door and what the shouting meant and if Pete was hitting Rose or the children. Maisie had said that Pete had made Henry’s bruise. He thought about the odd blond toddler and the guttural noise he made. He felt sad thinking about Maisie, and how even though he’d only met her twice he wanted to protect her. He thought about his own daughter, who had come before she was old enough to live, and how through this coming, he had lost not just a baby but his girlfriend as well, the wedding plans dropped.
Later James felt better; the strange unnameable feeling that gripped him had diminished. He wanted to talk to Melissa. He wanted to tell her about Maisie and her family. Saying her name out loud, he wanted to cry; ridiculous, he told himself, for a grown man.
Some evenings there was no sound from next door, other times there was yelling and screaming. In the afternoons James took to going into his garden when the children were home from school. Sometimes Maisie was there, on her own, or with Henry. One morning when Rose was in the garden, hanging out washing, James went out and asked if it was all right for her children to visit him.
“Why would you want them?” Rose asked. James wasn’t sure how to answer. Maisie was the one he wanted to see. He’d started buying fruit and biscuits so that he’d have something to offer her if she came over again.
“Well?” Rose said, frowning.
“I could baby-sit one night, so you and Pete could go out.”
Rose snorted. “You’re an odd one.”
“Am I?” James asked.
“How come you’re on your own?”
“Ah… it’s a long story.” James didn’t want to tell it.
“Anyway if you want the kids over, I won’t object.” Rose laughed. She turned and went back into her house.
That afternoon Maisie was in the garden on her own.
“Would you like to come to my house?” James asked her. She sat at the kitchen table, ate two chocolate biscuits and drank orange juice.
“Pete doesn’t hit me,” she said, watching as James cut a pear into quarters for her.
“That’s good.” James passed her the plate of pear. She picked up a piece and looked at it frowning. She bit into it, suspicious. When she’d eaten all the fruit, her chin was sticky. James passed her some kitchen paper and said she should use it to clean her face. She stared at him and then did as he suggested. There was something flirty in the way she sat opposite him, one thin shoulder raised higher than the other.
“I think it’s time for you to go home,” James said.
“Don’t want to. I want to watch your TV. Mum always puts baby things on for Aaron. He’s nearly three but he can’t talk. He’s actually dumb. That’s what Mum says. She says it and then she cries. Actually he can’t walk properly either.”
James turned on the TV and flicked through the channels until he found something he thought she’d like. He watched her watching the television and wished he could ask her if she was being treated properly. What Pete did to her, if anything, what he did to Rose, to Henry. He would like to have picked up the little girl, sit her on his knee and hold her. That wouldn’t do, wouldn’t do at all.
The house he’d shared with Melissa was sold, the mortgage paid, his share of the money in his account. The last tie. Probably he would never see her again, never talk to her. Then she telephoned.
“Just to say goodbye,” she said.
“I know,” James said.
“And to find out if you’re doing OK.”
“I’m managing to work more.”
“That’s good. Are you seeing friends?”
“Our friends were mainly your friends.”
“Not all of them, James. There’s Bob and Trev. You should call them. Meet for a beer or something.”
“All right. I will.” He might, James thought, he might call. Perhaps ask them both over for a Sunday lunch barbecue. Maybe.
“So …” Melissa was getting ready to finish the call.
“The thing is … I need to talk to you,” James said.
“No, James, no.”
“I need your advice.”
Melissa sighed. “Go ahead.”
So he told her about the family next door, about Pete and possible violence, about the little boy who couldn’t talk or walk properly, about Henry’s bruises, about Maisie and her vulnerability and also her strange knowingness, as if she was already aware of what her life would be about.
“Don’t get involved. Don’t. Find somewhere else to live. They’re not your problem.”
“I feel such tenderness towards her. As if …”
“She’s not yours, James. She can’t replace …”
When the call was over James phoned Bob, then Trev, arranged to meet them at a bar in town the following Saturday.
James was woken by his doorbell ringing late on Sunday morning. He’d drunk too much the night before. The bell rang again. He sat up in bed and rubbed his head. He pulled on jeans and a T-shirt and went to open the door. There was Maisie. She walked past him and into the kitchen. She sat at the table.
“Juice?” James asked. He poured a glass for each of them. He opened the biscuit tin and put it on the table.
“Apple?” he asked. Maisie shook her head.
“Why do grownups stay in bed in the mornings?” she asked.
“I don’t normally. I came home very late last night.”
“Can I watch your TV?”
“All right,” James said. When she was settled in front of it, he went upstairs, showered, dressed in clean clothes, came down, drank a glass of water and took two Panadol.
He went into the living room, sat down, leant back and closed his eyes.
“You’ve gone to sleep again.” Maisie was standing in front of him. She had turned the TV off.
“Sorry,” James said. He looked at his watch. “Isn’t it your lunchtime? Perhaps you should go home.”
“I don’t think so,” Maisie said. “Henry’s got a cut on his leg where Pete hit him with a knife. Pete’s always angry.”
“He doesn’t hit you, though, does he?”
“No. He says girls are too soft to hit. He doesn’t hit Mum, either, he just squeezes her to make her shut up. He doesn’t hit Aaron, neither. He wants him to go into a home.”
“What sort of home?”
Maisie didn’t answer. “You can take me to McDonalds. I went there for my birthday. I had chips.”
“All right. Perhaps we’d better invite Henry too. We’ll go and ask your mum.”
When Rose answered the door, she was wearing a shabby dressing gown and looked exhausted and as if she’d been crying.
“Yes, you can take Maisie, but not Henry. He’s not well,” she said.
The following Saturday when the doorbell rang Pete was there, holding a six pack.
“Fancy a beer?” he said and James led him into the living room and switched off the TV. Pete passed him a can, took one for himself and sat down, leaning back, legs apart, already drunk.
“Just thought we should get to know each other.” Pete burped. “You’re not married?”
“Me neither. Rose and me started to live together when she fell for Aaron.”
“Right,” James said.
The first cans were finished and Pete handed out a second round. He talked about women he’d known, how difficult it was raising other people’s kids.
“That Maisie, she’s a hard case. You don’t want to believe the half of what she tells you. Makes things up,” Pete said as he reached for a third can.
When Pete had finished his fourth beer, James apologised, saying he’d no more booze. He’d bring something round next weekend to make up for it.
“We could go to the pub,” Pete said.
“Another time,” James said. He sat and waited for Pete to go. Instead he fell asleep, lying back in the chair, snoring.
He would have to shift, James decided. Monday he’d start looking for a new place. He thought about Maisie and how he was deserting her. But Melissa was right, she wasn’t his child, she wasn’t his problem.
In the evenings the shouting became worse. Several nights in a row. When James went into the garden in the late afternoons, it was empty. On Friday he took his morning coffee and sat on his chair, holding his face to the sun. Another two weeks and he’d be gone from this place. He’d found a new unit to rent in the centre of town and a young couple were to take over this tenancy. Maybe they’d befriend Maisie, look after her a bit.
“Hey, James.” He opened his eyes. Rose was standing at the fence, staring at him in a manner reminiscent of her daughter.
“Rose.” He stood up.
“He’s gone. Pete’s gone.” Rose sounded angry and as if James was responsible for him leaving.
Rose snorted, turned and stomped back into her house.
That afternoon Maisie was in the garden. She came up to the fence as he went out.
“I’m not allowed to talk to you anymore,” she whispered. Her thin face was tear-streaked, her eyes huge. She stood still and stared at him. “Mum says you can’t be my friend.”
“But I am your friend,” James said.
Maisie nodded as if she knew far more than a six-year-old should know.
The police came the next day, two of them.
“I did nothing to her, nothing,” he said when they explained why they were there. The man shook his head; the woman looked away and sighed.