Frankie McMillan’s recent work includes My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions (Canterbury University Press), longlisted for the 2017 NZ Ockham awards, and co-editing Bonsai: best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (CUP, 2018). Her forthcoming book, The Father of Octopus Wrestling, will be published by CUP in 2019.
THE BIRTHDAY CAKE
The nurse said it was okay to bring in a birthday cake but not to bring in a knife and did I know where he was, had I been told? and I could see she wanted to educate me about matters that I knew more about than her so I just said I’d be there by two and she said no knife, no candles, and I agreed no knife, no candles and on the way to the hospital I drove past a paddock of horses, two of them were nuzzling by the fence, their big bodies shuddering in the sun and I kept thinking of those horses on the long drive, the way they communicated with just flick of an eye or tremble of a lip and I looked down at the birthday cake on the front seat and I laughed and this was the first time I’d laughed for a while and by the time I got to Ngawhatu I was ready to tell those doctors they’d got it wrong and there was no point in putting him in isolation when what would make him better was to touch another person but later in that locked room when he put his hands around my throat and asked if I was scared and I was scared and he said I’d have to trust him and I said, wait, we have to eat the birthday cake first, he rolled his eyes and grinned and we sat on the floor on a rubber mattress, digging into the sticky cake with our fingers and I was praying a nurse would be checking, looking through the spyhole and later again on the drive home I stopped in the fading light and went over to the fence and I held out my palm with the last of the cake and I just stood there and waited for the horses.
FATHER, MOTHER ON THE CLIFF EDGE
My parents were sitting on top of a cliff when a young girl went missing at the beach. They weren’t the sort of people to notice things and if they heard a strange cry they never raised their heads like some intelligent folk to remark, ‘I think it’s a bird … a shag,’ or ‘Hang on it must be a spoonbill, it’s breeding season.’ My mother would have noticed a fat person though. A fat lady in a tight swimsuit or better a fat person, eating, stuffing their face as they waddled along the beach. Would you look at that?
I couldn’t take my parents anywhere nice. I don’t trust you, I told them, I don’t trust what falls out of your mouth. My mother laughed. It made me happy to hear her laugh.
It was hot when the two policemen came out of the dunes and climbed the cliff towards them. My mother looked wildly from the flushed men to the busy beach below. A small tent had been set up and red tape cordoned off an area next to the rocks. They asked what my parents were doing up there. Their movements.
My mother said they were watching the sun go down. Watching the sun set, corrected my father. He made it sound as if they had some hand in this, some private knowledge about such things. Later they said they didn’t know why they had said what they did. They were taken by surprise, they said, put on the back foot with so many questions.
Soon after that my parents became invalids. Invalids! My mother began vomiting up strange little stones that resembled baby teeth. My father began to limp. He sat, gripping the edge of his bed. “Which foot do I start off with?” he cried.
I read to them. I told them stories. “You remember the time,” I said, “I went missing at the beach?”
The war arrived in a taxi. As usual it wanted money, wanted the taxi driver to be paid. “Hurry or I’ll knock your block off,” said the war. My mother. Running through the forest, running for her small navy blue bag. The war. In a khaki great coat. Trying to grab us boys. My mother. Giving coins to the taxi driver. My mother. Pulling off her necklace. My mother. Pulling off her clothes. “It’s a game,” she cried. “We’ll hide in the forest.” The war arrived in a taxi. We let the war get lonely. We heard it play the accordion. “That’s better,” said my mother. Clink-clink went the bottles of beer. Us boys laughed. The war staggered into the bedroom. We threw our hats in the air.
A GOOD MATCH
My husband appears at the studio door. I look up from my canvas. It’s the third time he’s changed his shirt. “Does this look ok?” he says. He wears green jeans and a white T shirt with black letters small as broken spider legs. “It’s better,” I say. “Better than before.”
Outside it is quiet. The neighbours are sleeping off hangovers, kids bikes sprawled in the yard, the air still fuggy with wine and charred meat. My husband says they had a good time last night, he heard them singing; grandmothers, uncles, aunts, small kids. He pulls his T shirt out from his trousers. “Better out or in?”
I want to be kind. To say whatever he wears he is the most handsome man on the street. But always a small hurt comes if I lie. Does an elephant have to work hard at being an elephant? I say. He shrugs. Pulls his white T shirt loose over his belly. “I’m off,” he says. “You remember where I’m going?”
He is going to meet his woman friend, drink coffee and argue about God’s existence. While he’s gone the neighbours will rouse themselves. The old arguments will begin, someone will rake the yard, hose dog shit off the cobbles, grandmothers will find a patch of sun and raise their faces to the warmth. I will stand alone before a blank canvas. After a while I’ll go into my husband’s room. Stare at the abandoned shirts thrown over the bed. Wonder again about what goes best, this or that, blue with green, him with me or her.
I could always tell when the soap woman had been to our house. For one thing, my father appeared brighter and when he spoke it was proper and clean and not about shite hole, scum bag, tommy rotter and up your coozie. What other clues were there?
A faint smell left on the kettle, around the teacup where her soap hand had been.
She ought to cut that soap hand off, I told my father.
My father smoothed down his hair. He eyed himself in the mirror. “Don’t go getting yourself in a lather, it’s only cleaning she does.”
Ah, but I knew otherwise. I’d seen her crouching down at the cabinet maker’s workshop. Her skirts tied up at her waist, her lardy thighs on show. Running her slippery hand over the runners of drawers to make them slide easy. I’d seen her wrap her hand around a screw before drilling it in place, seen her slide her smeary fingers inside a shoe to soften the heel, sigh as her hand slipped inside a man’s leather coat.
And now she was banging on our door again with her pale lumpen hand.
“Is your Ma in?” She swung her tin bucket in front of her. ‘Only I’m not staying long.’
So typical I thought. Full of slither and slather and quick down the gurgler she goes.
“Don’t be daft,” I said. This is what Ma would have said and the words came easy. Behind me I could hear my father cursing about the terrible situation in the bathroom. I knew it was a ruse. They’d lock themselves in there. My father and the soap woman. She’d sit on his knee, lick his earlobes, wash his mouth out with that big creamy hand of hers. Later he would emerge, bright eyed and whistling as if to throw us off the scent.
ONE OUT OF THE HAT
When Jimmy Clutterbuck comes into the office for the pre-sentence report he brings his pregnant girlfriend and a rabbit and I’m looking at the rabbit and thinking they’ll have enough on their hands with a baby let alone a hungry rabbit hopping around and I know I should be looking up the summary of facts but I’m mesmerized by the rabbit’s pink nostrils, all that damp quivering, the little gobbly mouth, and now Jimmy saying he couldn’t help himself, the pressure was buildin’ and the school girl just happened to walk past his car and if she hadn’t of looked inside and if his trousers hadn’t of been half down and if he hadn’t of parked where he did it would have been alright and I look at his girlfriend, her cotton frock straining against her belly and I say, I thought all this would have stopped with you and she says it’s nothing to do with her and in the silence I reach out for the rabbit, its paws scrabble the air but the girl holds on tighter and in that flustered moment I tell Jimmy his report isn’t looking too good, he’d better prepare himself for what’s coming and his blue eyes open wide and he says he’s already written a letter to the judge about his new responsibilities; father, husband and rabbit owner and his girlfriend smiles, she has crack sores on her mouth and a bruise on her arm but she smiles to hear Jimmy speak of her and later when she lays out a stained tea towel on the floor and wraps up the drowsy rabbit I think maybe – just for one moment – maybe they will be ok and the bad report could simply vanish from my desk, in a sleight of hand so swift, we could all believe in miracles.
THE STORY INSIDE HER
There is a story inside her and it is about a story running for its life and in the story there are riflemen in blue breeches who cock their muskets and take aim. FIRE shouts the captain. Gunpowder blasts the seat of the story’s pants but the story keeps running over the marshy ground. All around other stories are running, dodging this way and that. Some stories fall like dying swans. Somewhere in the story she sees blasted feathers, and from a tree, a dangling participle. Where is the white flag in this story? Where are the stretcher boys to rescue the story? But oh, look – the story, the story that started it all keeps running. Now there are only ten of them left and the border is in sight. Hooray they cry to each other. Hooray, keep going!
The story inside her says, that is your ending. But the story running for its life has its own ideas. The Captain must come back. He must tweak his magnificent moustache and declare something wise like, ‘Do not hide your light under a bushel.’ But who knows what a bushel is? Not the story running and not the little story inside her which is beginning to think that maybe that’s where the story should safely remain.