Alex Reece Abbott

Alex Reece Abbott

Alex’s novel, The Helpmeet, is a 2016 Greenbean Irish Novel Fair winner; Last of the Lucky Country shortlisted for the Northern Crime Competition. Her short fiction wins prizes and often shortlists, including for the Bridport Prize and Sunday Business Post/Penguin Short Story Prize. www.alexreeceabbott.info

“I used to think that I wrote down what I’d learned. Still true sometimes, but now I know that it’s a far more complex, intertwined, dynamic process of learning through writing. For me, that’s a huge part of the appeal.”


Mrs Horgan’s Surprise

for Joel

Enda squints at her feet and counts the stripes, where the early summer sun is already branding her fair skin.

Mrs Horgan has given her almost the right money – that way she won’t be tempted to squander any change down in Moa Creek.

Being sent to the store on your own was a sure sign. Almost settled, almost trusted now.

The jangling coins in her pocket taunt her, burning through her cheap cotton print dress like cinders. Cinder toffee and the sweets in the store dance in front of her eyes.

She knows all their names off by heart, a sweet catechism.

The kinds of mints?

Humbugs like sugar pillows; hard, medicinal little Smokers; Blackballs swirling black and white like marbles; striped Bullseyes; fat, powdery Oddfellows. Not to mention Extra strong and Callard and Bowser’s Curiously Strong – so fiery and tongue-burning, you couldn’t have too many of them.

And what are the types of toffee?

Cinder, dark and sharp with smoke; crumbly Hokey Pokey; rich, chewy, tooth-pulling Butterscotch; hard, sweet, golden Barley Sugar.

And Whittaker’s Deluxe in a tin. Not that she’s ever tasted those, but she’s seen them once at Gunnarsson’s store.

It’s only a game – she knows exactly which treat she’d choose.

She doesn’t need Mrs Horgan’s money anyway. She’s feeling lucky. If she just looks hard enough when she reaches the road into town, then she’ll find one of the new gold sovereigns with King George on one side and George slaying the dragon on the other.

#

Enda skirts around the edge of the trees until she comes out at the clearing. She follows the dirt track over the ford, where the river cleaves the forest.

Moa Creek is somewhere and nowhere. One of the settlers found a massive old thigh-bone exposed by the erosion on the creek bank, and he reckoned it came from a moa – not that anybody would ever see one of the large flightless birds now.

Died out, the locals say, as though it’s the perfectly natural order of things.

When she reaches the place on the track where a clump of wild arum lilies glow white as the pavlovas at the Christmas church gala, she makes a detour. Hidden from the sight of the few passers-by, her private blackberry patch has invaded the edge of a ditch.

She checks to see if anyone else has found her treasure, but the big fruit are intact, the vines unbroken. Not that she wants them for herself. Of course, she’ll eat some, but they are her surprise for Mrs Horgan. She surveys the quantity and size of the fruit, freckled nose wrinkled.

It’s hard to work things out exactly in this upside down place. At Home, her grandmother used to tell her that blackberries must not be eaten after Oíche Shamhna, because by Halloween, the fairies would have tainted them.

Enda smiles at the memory.

But everything is so back to front here, she doesn’t know what her grandmother’s old Irish superstitions mean any more. If she follows her grandmother’s piseóg, and waits for her fruit to ripen, that will be February, the end of summer – and well after Halloween.

#

She thinks that Mrs Horgan’s surprise is nearly ready. Some berries are still white, most are still pink. One fat fruit, glossy as black satin perches at the top of the straggling green bush. Stepping into the thorny arms, she tugs the purpling fruit from the cane and pops it into her mouth. She bites and screws up her eyes, spitting the tough core and gritty seeds in a pool on the ground.

She unsnags her dress, then carries on into town, counting on her juice-stained fingers. Nearly a whole year, farmed out at Drumcarrig. Slowly, they’ve grown used to each other’s ways. Enda thinks it’s going well enough, and she feels more settled than she ever has. It’s hard work, but she doesn’t want to be sent back to the Industrial School with the bad girls.

Mrs Horgan lost her only child, Aislin, on the boat from Dublin to Auckland. The girl was buried at sea with some cousins, and others on board who didn’t make it through the measles epidemic. That story still gives Enda nightmares. She’s never swum in the sea – and she isn’t ever going to, not now, not knowing that Aislin is in it.

Somewhere.

She shudders.

It’s a sad, gloomy place, the Horgan house – Mister Horgan’s South African War Medal in pride of place on the mantelpiece, alongside a hand-coloured studio portrait from the Old Country: Mister Horgan (left, standing) with Mrs Horgan (front, seated) next to their handsome little dead daughter, with her perfect dark ringlets (front, standing).

Whenever Enda sees the portrait, it’s like picking a scab. She can’t look Aislin in the eye without copping a heavy dose of guilt for taking the girl’s place at Drumcarrig.

In-comer, the dead girl mutters.

And, Mister Horgan? His horse bolted and threw him on his way home from Heedville. Cracked his head on a boulder crossing the river, and never came back from his coma. By the time the Auckland train pulled into Heedville and Enda stepped off, he was already buried.

Some days, Enda catches Mrs Horgan talking to the picture when she thinks no-one else is listening. She wonders whether Mrs Horgan ever hears an answer.

The portrait is a stabbing reminder to Enda: she’s a poor substitute. Still, she’s been allowed to board out at Drumcarrig because Sister Mary B knows that she’s a welfare girl, not criminal – not the worst-of-the-worst, no delinquent or larrikin in need of reform. However it’s dressed up, she’s an Industrial School girl, and sometimes Mrs Horgan lets her know it, too, with a crisp word or a sharp look.

“And, Enda, don’t be dawdling all over the show now,” she’d barked, as she handed over the shopping money that very morning.

Over the years, the most successful settlers have built up big estates around Moa Creek, making the most of the rich, alluvial soil. Other smallholders have scraped a living around the edge of town. Those with sense and means have already upped sticks, leaving the strugglers in stony, scrubby places like Drumcarrig.

The locals are mostly Swedes and Danes – hard-working Scandies who keep to themselves with their Settler’s Club and Temperance Hotel, and their simple church.

When the Maori kids first heard them talking and saying Ja, ja all the time, they named them the Ya-yas.

Ohhh yaaaaa.

Enda is thankful about one thing. Unlike most of the other girls from Industrial School who’ve gone into service, she isn’t under the watchful eye of some local policeman. The Scandies like order, and they’re mostly related, so there’s no crime in Moa Creek – at least, none recognised in law. There’s no need for a lock-up or a constable to run it.

On the edge of the cleared land, strange trees loom. The standing giants block the sky and form an ancient green wall surrounding the creek. A thicket of shrubs, ferns and strangling supplejack vines reach out from the ground to compete.

The land is ancient, yet new. The rocky, chocolate soil is gripped by thick forests that once hosted birds without the gift of flight. The settlers drained most of the swamps and fenced off their land long ago, but the bright purple swamp-hens – pukeko still patrol the last of their boggy territory. If she’d tried to explain it all to her cousins back Home, they’d never have believed her.

Closer to town, Enda leaves the track and joins a loose metal road. She kicks up at the gravel, looking for St George, the dragon slayer.

Nothing.

Yet.

She pauses to take off her sandals that nip at her heels. Not exactly heeding Sister Mary B’s warning to conduct herself with propriety, but Enda goes barefoot most of the time since she’s come to the Creek.

#

Picking her way over the sharp-stoned road, her body jerks like a chicken crossing the yard, her feet widening to grip the land, her eyes scanning the gravel for gold.

When she reaches town, the main drag is quiet as usual. Old ghosts hang over the settlement – the locked hotel, the closed saddler, the empty library. These days, even the dairy factory opens only in summer and autumn. And there, settled in the steep hills that block the rising sun, Gunnarsson’s store. Built onto the side of their house from wide planks (pit-sawn down at the local mill), the store has already closed down twice – hard times, ja, ja.

Sweet smoke drifts from the coal range. Enda imagines Mrs (Happy) Gunnarsson cooking up something tasty as usual.

Crumbling shortbread.

Sticky waffles.

A griddle full of buttery pikelets.

Enda licks her lips and tastes sour blackberry juice.

Opposite the store, the dusty yellow fingers of the AA signpost point out a lexicon of possibilities, all measured in miles away from Moa Creek. As she buckles her sandals, Enda lets herself dream of another life, another place. She hops over the gaps on the store porch, counting as she goes, avoiding stepping on any of the cracks. By all accounts, her father was a drunken rat, so she isn’t taking any more chances.

A horse trots down King Street, and she waits to see who it is. The dust clouds settle and Sonny appears, riding bareback, reins in one hand, flashing her a wide grin. He slows to give her a friendly wave, and she smiles back. Mrs Horgan has warned her off talking to him, but they’ve managed to chat a couple of times now – he’s the one who told her about the Ya-yas. And The Big Fire. And how he sometimes lives with his grandparents, at the neat little cottage over by the dairy factory. She’d felt sorry for him, until she realised that he actually liked staying with them, liked helping them.

He passes through the drifting dust like a mirage. His close-cropped coppery hair matches the mane of his glistening chestnut stallion. He swears that being a redhead makes him lucky, some good omen for his people, although she suspects that he’s pulling her leg. Still, she wouldn’t mind too much if he was the one who found St George.

Sonny, his horse and all his freedom sets envy tugging at her sleeve, like Milo, Mrs Horgan’s needle-toothed mongrel pup. No-one has ever called her lucky – and anyway, who decides who’s lucky and who isn’t? And how do they dole out this luck? She hasn’t worked out the answer yet, but being lucky … well, that’s better than being a problem, a nuisance to be farmed out and managed by strangers.

Back at the Industrial School, when the placement with the Horgans came up, Sister Mary B had called it a stroke of luck.

Be grateful girl, she’d said.

And mostly she is.

#

Gunnarsson’s General Merchants sells dry goods and groceries, fresh bread and milk twice a week, clothing, haberdashery, patent medicines and fishing equipment – and the store handles all the post, too. Old Gunnarsson serves the settlement and all the outlying farmers, offering free delivery within a radius of two miles to those with a discount ticket.

Enda steps over the threshold. She inhales.

Coffee beans (Hand Ground to Your Requirements).

Crusty loaves waiting in wicker baskets.

Fragrant cigars and aromatic pipe tobacco, laid out in neat displays behind the counter.

She savours the choices, but the main thing on offer cannot be found on any shelf. It has no price-tag; it isn’t even visible.

Gunnarsson’s is the local information exchange.

“Morning, Enda.” Mister Gunnarsson makes a song from her name as he grinds coffee beans. “We got a rest from the rain. How’s your … the Mrs Horgan keeping today?”

It’s hard to gauge Mister Gunnarsson’s age. Mrs Horgan reckons that people here look older from toiling outdoors seven days a week. Against the dark tongue and groove panelling, his snowy hair glows – except for the sides, where ginger streaks rise to match his wiry eyebrows. White coat and apron, always clean and ironed crisp with starch, his growing belly rests comfortably in the same old spot against the counter. He strokes his long, wispy beard like a pet.

At Gunnarsson’s, you’re allowed to pick out what you want for yourself. Shoppers cycle between the shelves and the two big old kauri counters that he’s varnished to the colour of rich honey. Taking their time, the customers wander the floor that’s worn smooth with years of trade and Gunnarsson’s hourly sweeping. They graze freely on gossip with their neighbours and mine Mister Gunnarsson and the other customers for tidbits.

Gertrude “Truda” Nilssen and Agnes “Aggie” Jensen are pretending to study the latest novelties that Old Gunnarsson has displayed on a big old pine table.

Mrs Horgan says that the two women are cousins of some kind, but Enda can’t see it. Big, sturdy Truda – strawberry blonde, cheeks so ruddy that she always looks like she’s blushing – wears her usual outfit: a simple navy skirt and a loose blouse with a ruffle around her thick neck. Aggie – thin, small, dark as a blackcurrant – is dressed in fitted, somber clothes that pinch her in and hold her up. The sort of woman who, they say, lives on her nerves. Judging from her build, they are not very nourishing.

Enda decides to wait till they’ve gone before searching the table for a suitable birthday present for Mrs Horgan. She works slowly through the aisles and displays, a browsing lady of the house, with all the time and money in the world. The choice within these four walls makes Enda’s head swim; in this land of plenty, everything has an answer, anything can be fixed.

How she could afford any present?

The women cut into her thoughts with their laughter. Enda hears her name and takes cover behind a pyramid of Finest A1 Sugar (Bags Selling in Limited Qualities to Our Regular Customers Only).

Truda clicks her tongue. “Well, if that was a riding accident then I’m … the Maori King.”

“Ja,” Aggie chuckles. “Lars Madsen broke that horse for Bob Horgan. Steady as you like.”

“Good as gold.”

“That’s right,” says Aggie.

“Jaaaaa … the bottle …”

Standing stock-still, every breath, every cluck and chorus reaches Enda, clear as a bell. She begins to feel sick, regretting the hard blackberry she’d sampled along the way. Her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth like a bluebottle on Old Gunnarsson’s fly-paper.

Truda lowers her voice. “So, I hear things are not so good out at the Horgan place.”

The other woman sucks her teeth. “I heard from Mister Fraser that she’s looking into strawberries.”

“So … strawberries. That bad …” murmurs Truda, a firm believer in the wisdom of a good dairy herd.

More Yaya.

“And what about the helper … that one from the bad girls’ school?”

Aggie whinnies. “You never can make the silk purse out of the sow’s ear.”

“And you never buy your pig while it’s still in a bag.” Truda sighs heavily. “Ja … no money, then she has to let that welfare girl go.”

“Ja, you gotta look before you buy. Maybe Mrs Horgan’s better with a bullock than a girl. That place is no charity, that’s for sure.”

Enda’s nails bite little crescent moons into her dry palms.

“That’s for sure. You think she’s gotta go?”

Truda sighs again. “Ja, that’s what I heard. I think that girl’s gotta go.”

Yaya wasp-words carry on the warm air, buzzing around Enda until her mind throbs. She listens hard for any further clues, fighting a desperate need to pee.

Beaming, Truda looms around the end of the aisle, gold-rimmed spectacles glinting as she beckons.

“Enda, how is your … Mrs Horgan keeping? I saw you arriving with the sore feet, ja? You got the long walk home. Come, we’ll have a nice cup of tea and a little chat.”

Enda knows all about the power of tea; the confessional left-over leaves that can tell tales of the past and spell future prophesy. Only once, not long after she’d arrived at Moa Creek, she’d fallen for this like a possum with a baited trap. That day, Truda Nilssen had brewed Empress Tea, dark and strong and sweet, not like the dusty scattering of loose leaves that Mrs Horgan stewed over the fire, eking them out into smoky, pale water. Not served in Drumcarrig’s thick, chipped crockery either; Truda is all fine bone china, pure white with pristine blue sprigs of foreign wildflowers.

Then came the questions, fast and thick as the whipped Jersey cream that Truda served with her cake. Truda’s innocent-sounding invitation would not fool her this time.

There’s a bad taste in her mouth, but Enda no longer cares about her sweets. And Mrs Horgan’s present will have to wait, unless she can think of something else to give her.

She has to get back to the farm.

“No, thank you, Mrs Nilssen. I have to go,” she croaks, her throat clogged with dust off the road and with fear.

“Ja, you gotta help on the farm.” Aggie watches her closely. “A lotta stumps still left to clear on that land.”

Truda pats her on the arm. “Mustta known I’d be seeing you, Enda, because I baked this morning. You can have some tea – or the coffee and some Pepparkakor, if you like … help you on your way. Come for fika at my house again.”

From that last visit, Enda knew all about Truda’s coffee and cake, knew all about her special ginger biscuits, knew all about her pumping for information. But, despite all Truda’s digging that day, Enda had never revealed anything of importance, not even when her cup was drained to the dregs and the delicious spicy Pepparkakor had been reduced to a few last crumbs.

“No, thank you. I can’t dawdle. Today I have to help Mrs Horgan.”

Enda picks up her basket and catches the glance between the sisters. What was that look? Pity? She rushes through Mrs Horgan’s list, double-checking the brands and the quantities, then checks them again.

Mister Gunnarsson leans over his counter, weighing and bagging split peas in a slow dance. Enda watches him, wanting the comfort of being in charge of her own routine, of doing something useful, of building something for herself. Knowing that it’s her stock. Her place.

She hands over Mrs Horgan’s groceries – butter, loose tea, one bag of sugar (Special Offer), Epsom salts.

He picks at the bag of sugar with his long index finger.

“No good, this one,” he pronounces with a click of his tongue. “Bag is ripped here, see. Never mind, I replace it for you.”

He takes the pencil stub from behind his ear, then notes down her purchases on the little pad that he keeps under the counter. His every movement is slow and steady as ever.

Her mind screams Hurry UP!

He looks up and smiles. “Enda, such a hot day we are having. Here – take a gobstopper to keep the spirits up on the walk home.”

Enda is sure she’s dreaming.

“Ja, ja.” He winks, and his snaggled eyebrows dance above his deep-set blue eyes. “On my house. Your favourite. Pay me when you are rich and famous.”

He means it nicely, but they both know there’s fat chance of that ever happening.

Mister Gunnarsson shakes the rainbow sweets so they roll and clank in their glass jar. “One never does no harm. Special, our secret, just for today.”

She thanks him, grabs the groceries and hurries back down the steps, back home to Drumcarrig.

In the humid heat of the day, the thick fern fronds have unfurled into furry question marks.

Enda sucks her gobstopper until sweet syrup overtakes the acid in her mouth.

The Ya-ya’s words circle her. What does Truda and Aggie’s gossip mean? Is she going to be returned, like the damaged goods that Old Gunnarsson sends back to the wholesalers in the city? And since she doesn’t really know how – or why – she was chosen to come to Drumcarrig, then how can she work out how she has become un-chosen?

Mind Your Own Beeswax, girls. Sister Mary B’s wise words again.

She should have been shopping, not ear-wigging. All the things she could have said flitted around her head, fleeting as long-tailed bats at dusk. But she knows full well that she can’t say a single thing back to bossy Truda, or miserable Aggie.

Good conduct till you’re twenty-one.That’s what the manager at the Industrial School calls it – and if he hears that she’s been giving cheek, then he’ll cancel her license for insolence. Recall her to spend the remaining seven and half years in his custody, back at Industrial School. And, forfeiting her placement would mean losing all those earnings they’ve been banking for her. Being talked about behind her back, and living at gloomy Drumcarrig, it was all still better than being stuck in the School workhouse.

Don’t Be Any Trouble Now. Sister Mary B‘s parting advice was clear as day.

So, she’d said nothing at all to Truda or Aggie.

Enda stops to loosen her sandals and tallies her troublesome ways. It’s an impressive list of deficits. She’s hungry, likes her sleep, can be slow in the mornings … a day dreamer.

Sucking her gobstopper, she stares up at the darkening sky, trying to find a way to balance the ledger. Now she wishes she’d paid more attention to Mrs Horgan’s birthday present when she’d been at Gunnarsons.

#

The rain comes down slow at first, then hard and fast, drenching, stinging her bare arms like bullets. Enda turns her face to the sheet-iron sky and bargains for one last chance to fix things. Pleas, special favours, prayers, petitions: she tries them all. A list of new things; extra things that she can do around the place – anything to ease Mrs Horgan’s life.

She wheels and deals, urgent as a market trader.

What if …

I promise I will  …

I promise I will never…

Then can I …

#

She drags her heels all the way back to the blackberry bushes and stops to check the fruit again. She can’t do anything about the present now, but perhaps she can do something about Mrs Horgan’s surprise.

She tastes her crop and puckers her lips. After another day’s sun, the fruit has hardly ripened. Her search only turns up a few more dark berries. A serenading parson-bird flexes his iridescent wings, but even the tui’s song sounds like a sneering laugh.

She’ll get back to Gunnarson’s soon, offer to run another errand, but in the meantime … Enda assesses the rambling spread of blackberries.

She can do it.

She promises to come back when the berries are bigger and darker and juicier – a good week or so yet – but, as a token of good faith, a small gift, something to make do for now …

She picks.

The ripest fruit are still hard, flecked with green, clinging to their stalks. Not ready to leave home; she captures them anyway. The thorny tendrils wrap her, embrace her, resist her, scratch her hands. But, she takes more and more, until she’s picked enough little bullets for a crumble … with a lot of sugar. Or, a small pie, if she fills it out with a jar of last year’s stewed apple from the pantry. Pastry is not her strong point; Sister Mary B had told her that often enough. She’d do her best.

The thought, that’s what will count.

The sun drives off the clouds and beats down on her again. She shivers, bedraggled, bloodied, and muddied from her battle. As she prises the prickles from her wounded arms, steam rises off her thin smock like the dragon’s breath from Truda’s delicious, strong coffee.

She sifts through the little pearls in her willow basket, gently discarding any precious black nuggets that the insects have found before her. Inspecting her haul again, she steps back. Arms outstretched, she spins around and around, until the world is swimming.

Staggering, she waves her purpled, thorny fist at the sky. “You listening up there?” She takes up her basket. “Will you help me, or not?” she shouts.

Her only answer comes from the tui, still perching on a thick flax stalk, his hooked beak a perfect match for the glistening crimson flowers. He puffs and struts, drunk on fermenting nectar, making a show of his lacy white collar. He fixes her in the eye and sings four notes at the top of his voice.

To her, it sounds like Pig in a Bag. She hisses, and he lurches to a safer roost, still spying on her every move.

Enda checks the position of the sun and reckons she can be home by four.

If she hurries.

#

On that sloping road home, every crooked rut and sharp rock beneath her feet is a penance for her dawdling. Her sandals cut welts in her heat-swollen flesh. Even when she swaps the dragging basket of shopping to her other side, her arm aches. The further she walks, the more the sour blackberries repeat on her.

She stops to massage her arms, and a squawking magpie swoops and dive-bombs her. Enda rolls her shoulders as she checks the skies and the branches of the towering trees.

Nothing.

She shields her eyes and scans again.

One magpie for sorrow, two for joy.

Surely, the bird must have chicks and a mate hiding somewhere near.

Standing in the shade, she wishes she could go back to the dawn; set off again; find St George and make sure she gets a decent present; instead of making-do with a handful of sour, gritty, far-from-ready blackberries.

If she could have a chance to somehow … but what can she put right? She has done nothing wrong, not so much as stepped on a crack.

“Aislin,” she says to the darkening sky. “Trust me, I don’t want to take your place.” She picks at the thorn in her palm. “I am not the worst-of-the-worst. All I want is a chance. Give me a chance to do better, a chance to stay.”

She looks for the magpie, but it has gone.

#

By the time she reaches the back door of Drumcarrig, it’s almost five. The berries roll around the basket full of shopping. She wraps her gobstopper in her handkerchief to save for later and braces herself.

There you are, so.” Mrs Horgan stands in the kitchen, her words flowing sweeter than bush honey. “You look like you’ve been in the wars.”

She points at Enda’s grubby, dusty sleeve, where the blackberry bush has left a little tear. Enda has forgotten that she stashed the first few blackberries in her pockets. Bruised from the journey home, they’ve seeped, bleeding magenta juice down her smock.

She waits, knowing that she’s handed Mrs Horgan another reason to return her, but there’s no outburst. No slamming pots and pans. No telling-off, no extra chores.

“I got everything on the list – and I brought you these.” Enda holds out the basket like a prize. “Plenty more – they’ll be perfect by the end of next week. I’ve got my eye on them for you …”

“Thank you.” Mrs Horgan almost looks tender, as she reviews the meagre harvest.

After Enda cleans herself up, Mrs Horgan sits her down at the kitchen table. She hands her the good dinner plate and a slab of bread glistening with last year’s home-made blackberry jam.

“Enda, we need to have a little talk …”

Enda gives her a smile and takes a bite. The dark bats swoop in, carrying Mrs Horgan’s words in dizzying patterns all around her head until she can’t hear.

“Are you listening to me, Enda?”

Enda is thinking how she’s been to the store for the last time now, and never even looked at the sweets on her list; never found the right present, let alone said goodbye to Mister Gunnarsson. She’ll never be invited in for Happy’s special waffles now, never go riding with Sonny on his beautiful chestnut horse. All of that, and knowing that if she tried to explain it all to her cousins back Home, they’d never believe her.

That, and knowing there’s nothing more she can do, that’s what makes her sad in the end. She drinks her sweet tea, and tries to listen.

Maybe she’ll get lucky.

Maybe 1914 will be her year.

She’d been so sure that she’d been settled, almost trusted.

 

First published takahe 87
August 2016