Gail Ingram’s short stories and poetry have appeared in journals and anthologies in New Zealand and overseas. Recent awards include Runner-up in the 2017 NZ NFFD International Micro Competition, Winner of the 2016 NZPS International Poetry competition, selected finalist for 2016 Best Small Fictions and shortlisted in the 2016 Fish Short Prize. Last year, she completed her Masters of Creative Writing at Massey University.
I wrote this story after reading Signs and Symbols by Vladimir Nabokov. The two main characters were Russian immigrants to America in the 50s. Their lives were so grim I was wondering what the point of reading on was. But the starkness was deliberate, contrasted with strange events and a sudden lightness pouring in at the end, I was completely hooked. I wanted to reproduce these effects in a Christchurch setting to show how it felt like for many people after the earthquakes; we look for signs of hope where there are none, and then find them in unexpected places.
Morse code, dolphins, detours and other signs
After Vladimir Nabokov
It took a long time to decide on a birthday present for their daughter. There’d been the practical considerations of the sort other people took when packing hand luggage for an overseas flight. No glass bottles, plastic bags, scissors, ropes or other potentially harmful materials. They also needed to be careful of not being offensive. Nothing remotely connected to religion, for example, or anything pink or feminine. They settled on a delicate etching of a tōtara tree on handmade paper. She wrapped it in tissue and her husband tucked it into a pocket of his bomber jacket.
The bomber jacket had been new when their daughter was born, unlike themselves—they’d been old for parents—she 37, he 40. On their first date, the leather had creaked jauntily, adjusting itself to the new partnership when she’d tucked his arm through his. Later, they’d become husband and wife and he’d taken on longer hours in garages. They’d worked towards having their own business, selling tyres. The dream had fallen into the cracks the earthquakes had left in its wake, along with their home and her teaching job. Now, she helped out at an understaffed migrant centre in Addington, and he, nearly sixty, supervised four men at a Beaurepaires franchise. Leaving each morning, she watched him drag on his jacket as if pulling a body from the rubble. She shut her eyes, sucked in her breath, then put her arm through his to walk out to the garage. The jacket stayed quiet.
The night was awful. Rain lashed against the car windows as if it was June, not November. As they turned into Milton Street the car juddered then clunked. Her husband swore and pulled onto the shoulder. The front tyre had blown. Their umbrellas had been left in the garage when she’d put them down to open the jammed door. They rummaged in the boot for the heavy-duty raincoat and found it under layers of supermarket bags, a discarded sweatshirt and a box of tools. She held the raincoat over their heads while he shunted between the back of the car and the front, pushed his wheel-brace round in hard deliberate movements then rolled the tyre with its flapping shreds back along the footpath, spitting dirty water on their legs. Back in the car, the rain made a cold strip down her back where she’d been unprotected by the coat, and she felt chilled. On arriving at the hospital, they found the carpark full and were forced to park three blocks away. They walked towards the Southeast Ward past other concrete buildings. They held the sodden jacket out in front of them as if they were a kind of double Sisyphus pushing a wall of water that would remain in front of them no matter how far they walked. A light in a window of one of the buildings began to flash on and off in what seemed like a code as they approached, but when they got close, they saw the room was empty. When they reached reception, a nurse they’d come across before and didn’t much like made a joke about their dripping state. He advised them it was in their daughter’s best interests not to see them at this time since she was still being calmed after her most recent suicide attempt, and their visit might agitate her further. They followed him down a corridor and looked at her through a security window. She was standing with her back to them next to a toilet without a door, lifting the seat, dropping it then lifting it again. A guard and two nurses stood behind her. On retrieving their raincoat, which left a dark wet mark on the carpet, they noticed the stuffed patient cubbyholes and slung-off cardigans thrown over the nurses’ chairs in the office and decided not to leave their present for fear of it getting lost.
It was a long convoluted drive home. There had been an accident on Brougham Street and the traffic was detoured along Moorhouse. They followed the lines of orange cones, a shining and confusing blur in the rain, and ended up in Woolston. A man was staggering out of the concrete-block tavern on the corner. As he glanced out onto the street, she saw his grey face distorted with grief before he pulled up his collar to the weather. She sat up a little. He reminded her of someone. Mark Kennedy. The 2IC at her first job at The White Cloud School. Yes, he had looked very like that man.
Every one of their daughter’s suicide attempts had been different. The last time she had ripped a picture off the wall in the patients’ TV room in a rage and tried to use a nail attached to the wooden frame to try and stab herself in her neck. She’d been prevented by an inventiveness only akin to own. Another patient decided that he wanted the bits of broken frame for hockey sticks so he could start up a team in the ward, and, being stronger, he’d wrenched it off her.
There’d been a paper written on her case, Co-morbidity: Mental Illness and Rages in the Adolescent, published by the Otago Medical School. It detailed how difficult it was to distinguish between emotional dysregulation (rages), psychotic symptoms, personality disorder and other related disorders, giving examples of each disorder and how it had presented itself in their daughter. They had examples of their own, which they’d collected over a much longer period. When she was six months old, the Plunket nurse had told them she’d never seen a baby with such a large vocabulary. During primary school, they found they’d wanted to make excuses for such things as her unusual fascination with world disasters and death, or her refusal to go on play-dates because her friend’s house smelt of chalk or they played the radio too loud, or her ability to convince her classmates to jump off the caretaker’s shed because she was ‘God’s angel’. They had made the decision to keep her in her age-group and hadn’t advocated for Gifted and Talented classes. Her ‘quirky’ beliefs had hardened into something wretched and uncontrollable by the time her school years were coming to a close and her teachers had begun to pull them aside with concerned looks. In her last year of high school and three years after the first earthquake the Youth Services gave their daughter her first label.
They pulled into the driveway. She got out of the car and leaned on the sticking garage door. It scraped across the concrete floor. Her husband parked then muttered something about fixing the tyre. She said she’d go and heat some leftovers. The cat had discarded a mouse with his back legs chewed at the front door. She stepped over it and went inside. The house smelled sour. After they’d first moved in, she’d spent a long time trying to locate the source but had eventually put it down to rising damp. The landlord had licked his wet lips when they’d asked for something to be done. Plenty of others lining up for this place, he eventually said. Their daughter had found it particularly hard to adjust to the move, her cold cramped bedroom with no space for her animal-bone collection or anatomy books. She stepped around the crooked piles of her daughter’s books now as she walked down the hallway.
A few minutes later, when she was putting the sausages under the grill, her husband came in from the garage. Drips pattered onto the wooden floor as he shook out his jacket. “The bulb’s gone again,” he grunted, and knowing well by now the droop of his shoulder, she didn’t ask further. As she continued to prepare the dinner, he picked up the junk mail and studied each page in depth, then re-folded each paper and placed it next to his elbow. The grind of knives on the crockery filled the silence as they ate.
When they finished, she cleared the plates and he did the dishes as they usually did. He mumbled that since it was already late he was going to bed. After he left, she went into the lounge and pulled out one of the boxes from behind the couch. Her Mythology deck was on the top, and underneath was the photo album she’d compiled for their daughter for when she left home. She took both items back to the kitchen table. The Eight of Cups was at the top of the deck – Psyche with her dark hair and moon-face on the steps down to Hades. She turned the card back over and opened the photo album. Their baby daughter sat on a picnic rug on the daisy-littered lawn of their old house. Self-contained, a bald baby like a little Buddha, in a pale green cotton dress. And over a page, there she was up a pine tree at the beach, Finn, her best friend, on a lower branch. Their daughter always went higher, or further, or refused to compete if she wasn’t going to win. She set up elaborate activities, not just a sandcastle to build, for example, but an almost life-size VW beetle with carefully sculptured wheel-rims and window-wipers. She stood next to it with Finn, sand stuck to her palms, brown legs astride, floppy sunhat falling over her radiant face. And there, her first debate at junior high school. In full flight, animated, standing in front of the panel. Her school had never competed before. She’d convinced her Social Science teacher to enter because she’d heard the topic was The World is Heading For Disaster and she rounded up a team. Her friends had shared a look of relief when it was announced they were to take the affirmative because they were worried about her reaction if it had gone the other way. They’d come second of ten schools—which wasn’t good enough. She sighed. And here. Barbour Street the day after the 6.3. Her daughter held the video camera she’d won in an online anatomy competition a year earlier, and she was filming the cars, nose down in liquefaction. Was that the turning point? Had it been from the time of the earthquakes that her childhood phobias of certain smells, colours, religious people etc had turned into something more strident and delusional? Would it have happened anyway? They’d stopped printing photos not long after. The move. Boxes. She had accepted it now. Demolishers “de-constructed” brightly-painted homes because they were in the wrong zone. Councilmen stemmed the gush of bright bubbling fountains because they were stormwater drains. Pests were pests to farmers, no matter the shining iridescence of their green wings.
She shuffled the tarot cards, divided the pack but didn’t turn the top card over. She thumbed back to the beginning of the album. Sometime later her husband’s footsteps pounded down the hallway like a drumbeat picking up speed, and she looked up, noticing the kitchen clock at nearly midnight. He pushed open the door, half-stumbled through and stood there in his pilled woollen singlet, eyes clenched and said, “I can’t sleep.”
“I thought you were really tired,” she answered.
He flung his hands in the hair. “I’m having an aneurism!”
“Wh—?” She blanched, stood up and a tarot card— two playful dolphins in front of a burning ship—wafted off the table down to the floor.
“Are you all right?” she stuttered. “Shall I take you to Afterhours?”
“No more hospital! No hospitals! We have to get her out of there.”
She stared at him a moment, then sat down nodding, one hand on the table. “Okay. Tomorrow is the weekend.”
Her phone started ringing. Why would someone be calling? “Ah, I better get it,” she said, patting her pockets, which were empty. They looked around.
“It’s here,” said her husband, and took it from underneath some envelopes on the bench and handed it to her. She answered. The caller said, “It’s Colin here. Is Sharon there, please?”
“No, I’m sorry. You must have the wrong number. Yeah that’s okay. Bye.” She put the phone back down on the table, muttering, “Wrong number.”
“Good, good.” He nodded vigorously, his face lighting up in the same way it had before. It reminded her of their daughter when she’d been debating. “I’ve worked it all out. We can do it tomorrow. We’ll have time to settle her in, and I’m due time off.” His hair was sticking out to one side. “She hasn’t caused any harm to other people. We can convert the lounge—make it her bedroom. It’s bigger; it’ll fit her books. I can make some dividers, and we can paint it blue, her favourite colour.”
“Okay… And we can convert her room to the living room…?”
“Yeah and I’ll make some shelves. She can help me.”
The phone rang again. They both frowned. She picked it up. The same man’s voice said, “Um. Is Sharon there, please?”
“No. I’m sorry. You’ve got the wrong number. Bye.”
“Damn nuisance,” her husband said. “Let’s have a cup of tea.” He swung around, marched into the kitchen and put the jug on.
They sat down together in the middle of the night to this unexpected supper. Something brightened inside her. Moving the photo album to one side to make way for her teacup, she saw their daughter’s birthday present that her husband had placed on the table before dinner. She passed it to him and he unwrapped the tissue. The tōtara leaves on the cream paper seemed glossier than she remembered. Like real leaves that might shine in the glow of this night’s orange light. The phone rang again, beating its feet on the wooden table.