Dianne Starrenburg

Dianne Starrenburg

Dianne Starrenburg has a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. In 2015 she won the Sir James Wallace Prize for her thesis, a collection of short fiction. She lives in Auckland with her husband and two children.

“While impossibly difficult at times, keep writing. Write stories that are vulnerable and indulgent and true. Stories that will not leave you alone until they are they are down on the page.”


Little Gift

Finley’s grandmother had gone for a lie-down in her room, the one that looked out at the feijoa trees, and weeks later, she was still in bed. Finley would poke his head around her door while his mother changed the sheets, brushed false teeth inside cups of solution and punched straws through Gladwrap stretched over glasses of water to keep out the dust. His father hovered at the edges of the room, ruffling curtains or flicking the fans on and off. He spent Sunday morning pacing up and down the hallway, and in the afternoon he drove out ‘to the shops’ and returned with a brown paper bag for Finley.

“Here’s a distraction,” he said, and Finley took the bag to his bedroom. Inside was a box from the Model Plus store that slipped and rattled with all the parts – the powders, the wheels, the paint brushes – of a yellow-striped aeroplane with fire on the wings.

The plane was tricky to make. He mixed goop that hardened to concrete and stuck on the wheels. He tried to paint just like the picture on the box, but his hand wobbled and the stripes looked like worms. He added a thick dusting of orange glitter.

Finley thought it would make the perfect gift for his grandmother. A little gift with a thought behind it made everything better – that’s what she liked to say.

All he knew about her illness was that it was ‘something about the lungs’. In the weeks before she went to bed, she spent most of her time sitting in her armchair with a breathing tube around her nose and a tank, warm and purring, beside her legs. Sometimes now she wore a mask instead of the tubes, and sometimes she made croaking noises and swiped her hands in front of her face. A nurse came every day to hang new bags of liquid to the pole beside her bed and to roll her side-to-side to change the sheets.

With the glittering gift balanced on the runway of his palm, Finley wandered down the hall to peek through the crack of his grandmother’s door. Whirring fans billowed the net curtains. The room used to smell of rosebud handkerchiefs and sachets of cinnamon sticks and dried orange. Her drawers were stuffed with envelopes, talcum powders and secrets wrapped up in sheets of crinkled tissue. Now there was a sharp tinge of disinfectant mixed up with it all, a scrubbed toilet bowl smell.

Finley peeped further around the door. He could see her arm on the bed, her cracked-chalk fingers and her hair, fluffed but see-through to the scalp, like the old dolls in his classroom toy box. He nudged the door wider and the hinges groaned. Tufts of hair shifted against the pillow. Finley slipped into the room and tiptoed around the edge of the bed. She was one of the old dolls at school, Finley thought, but a pin had pricked her somewhere and let out too much of the air. Her face sagged downwards to the pillow, her eyes were the same overcast colour of clouds reflected in a puddle and her lipless mouth made shapes around a jumble of croaking noises. Finley lifted his palm higher, held the glittering plane up for his grandmother to see. Her mouth moved, then it gaped.

Did that mean she liked it?

A toilet flushed upstairs and descending footsteps jiggled the lampshade above their heads. Finley’s heart started chasing-tails, not because he wasn’t allowed inside his grandmother’s room, but because his father would be worried to find Finley there. He would ask, what was the matter, was she okay, wasn’t she resting? Finley would not know the answers to these questions. He stepped backwards towards the door and bumped a trinket table. A silver picture frame and a vase of dried flowers crashed on the carpet, and he ran.

#

Finley sat at the window and pressed his nose to the glass. Beyond his fence the neighbourhood children jumped through a sprinkler and drew chalk patterns on the asphalt. Stephen Cleaver rolled past on his skateboard and stopped to tic-tac.

Finley’s grandmother used to snooze in a heap on her armchair while Finley pressed his nose to the window like this. Once, when her mouth was gaping open, he took sandwiches and Neenish tarts out onto the lawn. He offered the plate to the children, but they flurried away, ruffling hydrangea bushes down the side of a neighbouring house.

“How lovely.” His grandmother had woken. She joined Finley on the lawn. He sat on the grass and looked up at her shadowed face, and her white hair that floated like clouds.

“A picnic,” she said. “A party. I adore parties.”

Finley scooped at the chocolate side of the tart with his little finger, while his grandmother arranged cups of juice and picked daisies for decorations.

#

After dark, Finley tiptoed down the hallway and peeked through his grandmother’s door. Her hair was lit up in a fuzzy moon. Green and red buttons glowed from the machine beside her bed, like a spaceship. Perhaps his grandmother would prefer it if he made her a spacecraft instead of a plane. She loved ships. She had a box of postcards with paintings of old steamers and cruise liners and pirate ships. Finley’s favourite was Achille Lauro, with blue chimneys and white stars, charging through the ocean. His grandmother’s finger would tap at the postcard and she’d say, “This one cruised from Italy to Australia and New Zealand before it was hijacked.”

“Hijacked by pirates?”

“No, by the Palestinian Liberation Front.”

“What’s that?”

She shuffled through her cards. “Here’s one that was hijacked by pirates. By Chui Apoos pirate fleet in Bias Bay.”

Finley’s grandmother had every kind of ship that he could think of, except for a spaceship. It was the perfect idea. He tested the floorboards before he stepped, and in the garage he attached paperclips and pushpins to his plane, for the levers and buttons. He scrunched tinfoil around the wheels and tied string to the wings.

In his grandmother’s room, Finley climbed up the bookshelf and clambered onto the tallboy dresser. He stretched shaking hands to the ceiling and stuck the string there with tape. The spaceship dangled, limp and upside-down, glinting in tinfoil moonlight.

Finley wriggled back down to the carpet, and when he looked up, the space-machine crashed from the ceiling. It cracked on the tallboy, bounced off his grandmother’s bed, and landed in broken pieces. His grandmother’s eyelids peeled upwards, her eyeballs white and rolling. She made a throaty sound.

Finley sprinted to his bedroom. He crashed into bed and hid under the covers. When the stamping in his chest settled to a slow march, he opened his eyes in the dark. He saw a rolling, gurgling face. It wasn’t his grandmother’s – it belonged to something else, some other creature altogether.

#

“This is Finley,” his mother said in a sugared voice. She stood with Mrs Cleaver on the driveway and squinted into the sun. “Finley, what do you say? Say, hi.”

“These are for you.” Mrs Cleaver had a lot of creamy teeth, all squashed together. She hung a plastic bag of strawberry punnets over Finley’s open palms. “You and Stephen need to get to know each other better. Why don’t you two play together this weekend? What do you think?”

Finley thought he might have swallowed the aeroplane goop that turned into concrete.

“It would be nice to have a distraction,” his mother said.

She thanked Mrs Cleaver for the strawberries and Finley sprinted with them, bag rustling and bouncing, up the steps through the front door and into the kitchen. He dumped the strawberries on the bench. One rolled out of an open punnet, wrinkled and bruised. Finley pressed his finger through the skin and the juice spilled. The insides smelt of syrup. A butterfly laugh – his mother’s – skimmed and flittered over the lawn and through the windows. She saved her laughs for strangers, he thought. If he could he would chase them and catch them and keep them in his pocket. Make them his.

That evening the nurses brought in a new machine with tubes that crisscrossed and coiled, and Finley lay in bed with his spacecraft. It was bandaged in tape and the wings stuck out at strange angles. There was a niggling feeling behind his belly button, a breathless squeezing. It was a similar feeling to the sort that came when it was dark outside and his parents weren’t home yet – when he started to wonder whether maybe, this time, they wouldn’t come home at all.

#

Finley was given three dollars to spend at the dairy with Stephen Cleaver. They bought popsicles, kicked at broken glass in the gutter and Stephen told Finley about his whale – the blue whale in his garage. Its tail stretched along the wall and slapped, bang bang bang, keeping the Cleaver family up most of the night. Stephen would squirt it with a hose and shove fish through its grills. “Grills are what they have instead of teeth,” he said.

“Does it blow water out the spout?”

“Yeah. It squirted the light bulb and made the garage pitch black. Now I have to feed it by feel.”

“Can I see it,” Finley asked.

“Can’t be disturbed.”

“I’ll show you something, then.” Finley threw away his stick and got on his bike.

In the dim garage light, he held the spacecraft by its string. He spun it in circles, making whirring noises, while many invisible rocket ships buzzed and flipped inside his stomach. “It’s a spacecraft. Used to be a plane.”

Stephen looked around the garage and back at Finley’s circling creation.

“It’s a gift for my grandmother … to make her better.” The words sounded strange in his ears. They sounded false.

Stephen made a face like lemons. “My mum said your grandmother’s dying. A dumb plane thing won’t work.”

“She’s not dying. It’s something about the lungs.”

“Don’t be a baby,” Stephen said. The Mr Whippy truck played a tune from out on the street somewhere. Stephen dug his hands into his pockets in search of loose change and then he skidded through the garage door and up the driveway, chasing ice cream.

#

Finley’s mother was at the clothesline when he reached her, breathless.

“Stephen said she’s dying.”

She pegged a towel and bent down to face him. A breeze flapped hair into her mouth and she swiped at it. “Dying’s an adventure, Fin. She’ll get to start a new life, in an exciting new place.”

“But she’s getting better.”

“She’s going to a better place.”

Finley couldn’t stop making little gasping noises. He licked the tears on his cheeks and wriggled from her grasp. He ran to the garage with his spacecraft in his palm. A paperclip fell off the tail and made a tink-tink noise on the garage floor. Gulping air and saliva, Finley shoved the spacecraft into a toolbox and pushed it far back into a dark place behind paint tins, scurrying daddy-longlegs and crates stuffed with newspapers.

#

Finley sat cross-legged in the corner of the feijoa room. From his low angle the bed looked like the bow of a ship, but he couldn’t see the captain buried in its holds. His mother fluffed pillows, arranged rows of pills, tissue boxes, wipes, adjusted the mast with the flapping sail of liquid, and the nurse attached tubes to vials and opened paper packets with her blue-gloved hands.

“Are you sure you want to be in here?”
Finley’s father bent down face-to-face and took his chin between two scratchy fingers. “Why don’t you go ride your bike. I could turn on a video?”

Finley shook his head. The cat climbed onto his lap and gave his jeans a bristly lick. He wrapped the net curtain around himself and watched the room from behind its folds. Things looked fuzzy, checkered, a little bit smudged with mildew.

When his parents left the room, their voices muffled, Finley climbed up on the edge of the bed and watched her heavy eyes and the rhythmic puffs that fogged up the plastic prongs in her nostrils. Clear tubes trailed over her cheeks and ears. Her fingers were laced together on her stomach, soft as wrinkled tissue. She used to give Finley horse bites with those hands – big knuckles and wide nails and little ribbons of blue running up and down between the bones.

Finley’s movements made the bed bounce and her eyelids peeled open. Her eyes were watery, and fixed on his. Finley’s tummy tightened. He poked his fingers through the holes on the crochet blanket and squeaked out the words, “I love you.”

Finley waited. His grandmother croaked some noises; she crackled them up and coughed. Coughs began popping, snapping, as though her chest blazed and the words were lost in flames. Her eyes closed and opened, and her head fell back on the pillow. She needed something and Finley did not know whether it was medicine, the breathing mask, more ice, or whether she was trying to say, “I love you, too.”

Her eyes were wide and pleading. She reached out for his hand and Finley squealed. He shuffled backwards across the bed.

“What is it, what’s wrong?” Finley’s father swooped into the bedroom. “What are you doing up there, get down!”

He wriggled off the bed while his mother dropped little pieces of shaved ice into his grandmother’s open mouth, dousing the flames. Finley ducked into the hall and peeked his head around the doorway. His grandmother’s eyes grew blurred and glassy, as if rain had begun to drizzle down inside of her.

“There, there,” his mother said, as she adjusted the machine. “How’s that now? There, there.”

#

At school, a crowd clustered under the monkey-apple trees. Finley pushed past a girl with grass-stains and a senior boy whose voice shrilled when he yelled, “Dissect it. Get the sticks and dissect it.”

Stephen Cleaver was crouched in the dirt over a dead sparrow, its claws draped around an invisible branch, black droplet-eyes still open. He dug a stick into its wing and spread the fan of its feathers.

“Give me another stick, then.” Stephen’s face was flushed, hair cow-licked and ruffled. His tongue stuck to his top lip in concentration.

Finley scrambled around in the dirt, tree roots and squashed monkey-apples. He grabbed a knotted twig that was pencil-sized and rough at one end. “Here!” he said.

Stephen looked up at Finley, at the stick in his hand. He leant close and the sweat on his skin smelt hot and salty. “You do it,” he whispered. “I’ll let you see my whale.”

Finley inched closer to the bird and pressed the broken stick against its breast. He pushed into the feathers, but the bird felt tough and rubbery – he would have to stab to open it up.

“Ew, gross!” someone said.

“Don’t do it!”

Finley wanted to see the whale, and he didn’t want to be a baby, but the stick felt shaky in his hand. An ant scurried over the dead bird’s head and disappeared inside the hole of its nostril. Vomit crept up Finley’s chest, towards his mouth.

“Give it here.” The senior boy grabbed the stick, shoved downwards and something popped inside the bird. One of the children screamed and the boy let go of the stick. The bird fell over sideways, skewered in the chest.

“That’s disgusting.”

“Here comes the teacher.”

The crowd of children dissolved into shrieks and scattered across the field and the netball courts. Finley ran with jelly legs, panting, all the way up the hill to the out-of-bounds area behind the prefabs, that looked over the suburb. He saw his cul-de-sac, his orange roof beside feijoa trees, flowering on the lawn. With his back pressed up against the classroom wall, Finley saw the bird’s popped chest over and over in his mind. He saw its glassy eyes, black as the night. Finley slid down the prefab wall. He couldn’t help it, he couldn’t – he thought about death, and dying, and dead bodies all the way to the afternoon bell.

#

There were barbecue smells in the cool air, and the repeating thud-ring of a basketball on the asphalt. Tūī flittered from blossoms to power lines, and two girls were tossing homemade confetti in the wind. Finley stepped off the porch towards the children.

Stephen Cleaver looked up, and began to bounce his basketball ball so fast that it blurred and slap-slapped the palm of his hand. It slipped out sideways and rolled under a hedge.

“Great, you lost the ball,” another boy said.

“I know something cooler than a ball,” Finley told Stephen. “It’s a secret.”

“Can you prove it? I don’t feel like being bored by babies.”

Finley lead him under the clothesline towards the cat’s nest of leaves beside the rubbish bins – when he stood on it, fleas would hop all over his shoes.

“What’s that?” Stephen peeked through the corner of the window beside the feijoa trees. His lips scrunched back as though he’d bitten into ants. Finley’s breath caught. Behind the window, his mother dunked a flannel into a container of soapy water and wiped the skin of his grandmother’s exposed thigh. Her boney legs were bare. She had two flaps of slack skin for a bottom.

“No way.” Stephen nudged Finley in the shoulder and whispered, “That’s gnarly.”

Finley turned from the window and pressed his spine to the weatherboards. Stephen looked at him, expectant, and Finley choked up a glass laugh that scratched his throat and shattered.

Ooooh,” Stephen squealed. “She lifted the leg, she’s wiping her fanny, her vagina—’ He stopped mid-sentence and his expression turned to fear. He sprinted from the window, disappearing up the side of the house.

Finley saw his mother through the glass. She banged on the window with a soapy, blue-gloved fist.

#

Finley’s mother made him wait in the hall while she finished drying and changing his grandmother. He heard her huffing, a tap turning on and off, containers rattling. The walls and carpet darkened from pink to blue, as the sun slipped from the sky. He listened to his breath and tried to slow it down. “I didn’t do anything, I didn’t,” he repeated in his mind, but the words came out crooked when she flew into the hallway, hunched forwards, arms splayed like enemy wings.

“I didn’t show him, I promise. He saw it by himself!”

Finley couldn’t meet her eyes. Her jeans were splashed dark in patches. He watched a fluffy cluster of soapsuds on her thigh and shook his head quickly back and forth.

“Do you have any idea how mortified your grandmother would have been if she’d known? That was the most disrespectful—” She stopped and looked at the ceiling. “What has got into you, Finley? What is wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with who?” Finley’s father was standing at the end of the hallway with grocery bags in either hand. He kicked the front door closed.

“Don’t breathe a word of this to your father,” she whispered. “This is the last thing he needs right now.”

“Here you go, mate.” His father pulled a thin book out of a plastic bag. “It’s all racing cars.”

Finley took the colouring book to his room. With broken crayons, blunt pencils and drying felt-tip pens, he coloured roads, clouds, trucks and license plates. He coloured them brown, green and orange. He coloured and coloured until his eyes blurred, but he could still see the shocked faces and the soap-splashed sheets.

That night, the noises were loud: the churning and whirring. Sometimes there were other sounds and he listened to those instead – rumbling cars, crickets and moreporks out the window, and the close, ringing whine of mosquitoes.

#

Finley thought a gift for his mother might make things better. He would give her feijoas. Last year he crawled under the trees with his grandmother and they gathered three grocery bags full. She showed him the best ones to tear apart. “The soft ones,” she said. “The darkest green.” Feijoa peel would bunch under his fingernails when he ripped them open, and the juice would run down. Finley licked the fruit and wiped his sticky fingers in the grass. They packaged some up in plastic bags with ribbons, as ‘little gifts,’ his grandmother said, for the teacher, or the doctor, or his mother.

Finley hunted around the dewy grass all the way to the neighbour’s fence, but there were only browning petals and fallen leaves. The trees were flowering small bunches of red hair and Finley thought he would pick those instead. He pulled at the flowers and they snapped from the branches in a shower of raindrops and crumpled in his hands. He stuffed his pockets with broken gifts – fuzzy white buds, and leaves and damp needles.

#

He’d finished colouring-in his racing car book, and it was thick with slippery pages. His mother found him at his desk and kissed his hair. “You need to go outside,” she said. “Fresh air.”

Finley wandered along beside his fence and peered over at the Cleaver’s garage.

His trousers caught on a nail when he climbed, and he landed, sprinted across the driveway, and pressed his face up to the window. Water churned somewhere inside and his heart skittered. It was dark; his eyes took a moment to adjust. He saw a concrete floor, cardboard boxes, a hula-hoop, bikes, paint tins. No whale.

The churning water was coming from the washing machine.

“Oi!” It was Stephen. He stood with grass-stained knees and a skateboard in one hand.

Finley stepped away from the window. “You lied.”

“It’s dead. Anyway,” Stephen dropped his skateboard and started tic-tacking on the driveway, “who cares about whales? I’m practising for the New Zealand Skateboard Championships.” He rolled down the sloping driveway, knees wobbling, arms stuck out for balance. Finley knew he was lying about the skateboarding, too. Stephen Cleaver was a liar and Finley hated him.

“There you are!” His mother stood at the top of the driveway where the neighbourhood children were gathering in. The sun-streaked sky was behind her, and there was something in her hand, crinkly and glinting with paperclips.

“I found this in the toolbox. Dad said it’s yours.” Her voice caught. She sounded hoarse. “A gift for your grandmother?”

Finley ran up and took the sparkling lump from her hand. The unidentified object. That’s what it was, not a spacecraft or a plane, but a UFO.

“What’s that?” someone said.

The children had hose-water hair and ice-block fingers and were pressing forwards to see. There, flashing, igniting on his hand, was a thing from another universe. From a different place. Maybe even a better place.

“Can I have a look?” Someone made to grab it, but Finley’s UFO hovered past the children. He ran with the silver creation in an outstretched arm. It whipped around the cul-de-sac, bouncing over fence posts, hedges, letterboxes, and he didn’t care how loud it roared.

#

The nurse stayed late into the evening, and Finley’s parents spoke in hushed words. He tried to close his eyes, but the UFO was blinking. When he was sure everyone was asleep, Finley shuffled across the hall to the feijoa room.

A breathing mask rested, strapless, on his grandmother’s face. Her hair was flatter around her head, a half-moon. The skin of her bare arms was loose fabric over bone. Finley placed the UFO on her pillow and pressed his nose up close to hers. Her forehead seemed thinner and her eyes were sunken, but the mole on her temple was still there. So were the holes in her earlobes that used to hold silver wire, dangling with jingly stones. She was still his grandmother. Somewhere underneath the mask, inside her dreams, she was the same. She still loved to collect feijoas and sort through postcards of watercolour ships. She loved parties.

“I have an idea,” Finley said to his grandmother. “Just wait right there.”

#

The first time Finley tore a page from the colouring book he looked up to see if his grandmother stirred, but her body was slack against the bed. He ripped out all the pages and made a bright mosaic on the carpet. One by one, Finley peeled strips of tape and stuck the pictures to his grandmother’s curtains, in-between framed photographs, on the knobs of her dresser, the breathing machine, the liquid-bag flagpole and in rows across her bedhead. A breeze from the open windows flapped the pages, and they rustled like feathers.

When he was finished decorating, he sat on his grandmother’s crocheted blanket and placed the UFO back on her pillow.

“Do you want some cake?” he asked her still form. “Maybe a neenish tart?”

The lampshade shook above his head.

Finley jumped off the bed.

He wasn’t sure whether to hide behind a curtain or run. Footsteps descended the stairs and thudded down the hall. His father arrived and hovered in the doorway. His mother entered the bedroom and her startled eyes roved from Finley to the decorations on the dresser, to the bed, and to the walls. She started crying. She pressed her hands up to her face and a small butterfly laugh escaped her lips. It fluttered into Finley’s chest and beat around in there.

“It’s a party,” he said.

#

They sat on the bed, the four of them, and pretended to cut cake and sip tea. They pretended it was a happy birthday, the start of a new life. Each of his grandmother’s breaths took a count to twenty, to thirty. Sometimes Finley was not sure whether her breathing had stopped altogether, but she’d suck in a long drain of air and start again. Her eyelids lifted. She batted the mask away from her face.

Finley had felt desperate and confused, but now he thought he understood the difference between lies and the truth. Lies were things like the whale and the skateboard. The truth was that his grandmother was dying, that tomorrow, or today, or in a moment, she’d be gone.

Finley did not know for sure that his grandmother was going to a better place. He thought that nobody would ever know until they died, and that was not a lie or the truth, it was a type of magic – a little gift.

The net curtains breathed at the windows, and the moon lit the room to a hazy blue. Finley copied his father; he took her other knuckly hand and held it, and then he gave his grandmother something special. He told her about the fireworks at the party, and the pirate in the corner. He picked up the UFO and showed it to her. When it started blinking in the moonlight, she saw it, too – her eyes widened. Perhaps she also saw the planes flying in through the windows, and the ships that sailed out of her secret drawers to the sound of the ocean.

After they took her body away – after the funeral, the flowers, the tears – Finley lay in bed and thought about her crinkly eyes and her big hands. He saw her by the feijoa trees, asleep on her velvet chair, and spreading marmite at the kitchen bench. In that moment, Finley realised something that was not a lie but the truth. His grandmother had left gifts for him, too.

Lying on his back, Finley opened them, carefully, one at a time, all the memories.

 

First published takahe 87
August 2016