Later that afternoon, while I was out the back unpacking new arrivals, Moira came looking for me and suggested I finish early. “I can see you’re a bit distracted and it’s really quiet this afternoon. Why don’t you head off early?” She touched me on the shoulder and it took all my self-control not to blurt it all out. I actually had to clamp my lips together. I realised that she had given me time to make an extra trip to the house.
I quickly unloaded the car into the house at Manurewa, rushing from car to house and back again. I felt scared of being caught. I just dumped everything in the first small bedroom, ignoring the goose bumps, again from the feeling of intruding in a stranger’s home. I stayed long enough to hang my summer clothes in the wardrobe, but just dumped everything else on the bed. The box of books and DVDs I dumped on the floor.
It was a new experience to feel at least a little in control when David arrived home that night. As he came in the door, I realised that I’d been bracing myself for more conflict, but tonight, it seemed I didn’t exist. Other than a brief greeting, he poured himself a drink and took himself off to the bedroom. Whisky was his drink of choice these days. Hearing the shower running was a bit disconcerting. I felt adrift in this change in routine, as if I was in a play, but didn’t know what the next scene was. David didn’t usually shower before dinner unless he was going out.
I was just putting the apple crumble in the oven, when I heard the front door slam shut. I couldn’t believe my luck, he was going out for the evening. I didn’t have to worry about not letting slip about the move. Even better, I could do some more packing. I raced to the front room, just in time to see the back of his car turn the corner.
‘Yes!’ I punched the air with my fist, imitating the students on campus when something finally and unexpectedly went completely right. A night on my own. It couldn’t have been better if I’d planned it. It was an indication of how completely our relationship had changed. He thought he was punishing me and yet, from my point of view, his being out for the evening was a total gift of space and time.
Firstly, I wandered over to the drinks cabinet, chose a bottle of good red wine and opened it. I watched with relish as the red, velvet liquid swirled around the glass. It was the best bottle of wine we had. I lifted my glass in salute. “Stuff waiting for it to breath, I need it now.”
I would eat a leisurely dinner and spend the evening packing. I carried my dinner to the bedroom and ate it as I sorted through my things. It struck me how little of our belongings were actually chosen by me.
My clothes seemed a good place to start and so I dragged out one of the old suitcases. I tried adding and adding to the already over-full suitcase until eventually, I sat back and took stock. A large pile of clothes overflowed around me on the floor, waiting to be packed. I looked at the suitcase and assessed what I could take out. The box of my mother’s silver was a bit bulky, but leaving that behind was unthinkable. I was desperate to take what was unbearable to leave behind. My fingers gently traced the outline of the picture on the cover of the box of silver desert forks. The painting of a 17th century picnic under a giant oak tree, was a time when life was slower. The picture suggested men were courteous and life was bounteous, filled with happy families, loyal friends and devoted pets. Mother smiled elegantly and lovingly over the happy scene. It had been a long time since I had grieved for my mother, but I ached for her now. Knowing the picture wasn’t real didn’t make it any less of a wonderful image. I left the box of small silver forks in the bottom of the bag.
In the end, the choice became what to leave behind. Things which would have brought me comfort in a strange house, would have helped soothe me through the times when fear overwhelmed my tenuous courage, I folded and placed carefully in a cardboard box unsure on how co-operative David would be about whatever I had overlooked or forgotten. In all conscience, I just couldn’t take the things which were rightly David’s as much as mine. I felt I was already taking so much from him. My new unknown was that I didn’t know how the new David would react at finding I had left. All I knew was that I was now frightened of him.
I made several trips to the car until the boot was full. I couldn’t risk putting anything inside the car in case David spotted it when he got home. I couldn’t bear if he discovered what I was doing when I was so close to leaving. My nerves simply couldn’t take an argument now.
That night I locked myself in the spare bedroom before David got home. Every little creak of the house, every car driving past woke me into instant fear only to collapse back on to the pillow, heart pounding, my breaths coming in shallow gasps.
I woke with a start, very early. Outside my sanctuary window the birds were in full song and I lay there for a moment, the picture on the wall confusing me. Then I heard the shower running and realised what had woken me. The bedside clock announced 5:30, it seemed David had stayed out all night. Heavy regret filled me as I realised how far apart we now were. While there was comfort in being able to justify what I was about to do, sadness settled as a tight knot, choking me.
I lay listening to the sounds of him moving around the house and stopped breathing when the door-handle quietly turned. The door creaked as he leaned against it, testing the lock. Footsteps, then the slamming of the front door and I heard his car back out of the driveway. With the knowledge that it would be the last time I would hear him leave for work, I desperately wanted to dive into the pillow and cry, release all the hurt and wake up to find it was just a bad dream. But it was too soon. There’d be time for that once I was in the new house. Once I felt safely away.
I got up and checked, paranoid that he might have sneaked back up the driveway. There were no more tears. even in the shower, my eyes felt dry. I forced myself to eat some toast, cardboard-dry in my mouth. I had to wash it down with coffee to stop from gagging.
Finishing every last crust, I put my dishes in the sink and rinsed them, carefully wiping the bench and leaving everything clean. On second thoughts, I took my mug and wiped it vigorously. I walked out to the garage and brought in several cartons. I packed my favourite dinner set, carefully wrapping each piece in newspaper and placing it in the carton. We had three dinner sets and David never had liked this one but it was my favourite. Then I put in some pots, some of the groceries that only I used. Then I carried the cartons with my mug on the top and placed them on the back seat of my car. I would make a trip to the house immediately I was finished at the lawyers. Then I would come back and load the car again to capacity.
A little voice told me not to be at home around lunch-time. You just never knew if David might to decide to pop home in his lunch break. He never had before, but you couldn’t be too careful.
I was early for my appointment at the lawyer’s, but I’d only waited a few minutes when Mr Jackson appeared to show me through.
‘Now, what can I do for you, Mrs Harrison?’
‘I want to know if there’s any reason why I can’t move into the house.’ A look of surprise was quickly followed by his blank lawyer’s mask. ‘I want to move in,’ I added lamely feeling like I was asking for permission. His approval.
‘You can do what ever you want with the house, Mrs Harrison. It’s yours lock, stock and barrel.’
Relief flooded through me. ‘Thank you,’ I smiled tentatively.
It wasn’t quite facetious but it reminded me where I was and some of the questions I’d wanted him to answer. ‘Mr Jackson, who’s been through the house?’
He looked away and sat back in his chair. ‘Yes, you asked me that the other day. To my knowledge, the only person who’s been in the house since he died was the cleaning lady who gave it a good tidy. No-one else to my knowledge.’
‘A cleaning lady! She worked for Frederick Hopmann?’
“We hired her to give it the one clean. It was in the letter of instruction.”
‘Could I have her phone number please? I’d like to get in touch with her.’
A cold smile. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
Urgency shook me. ‘Don’t write to me, will you? I’ll call and give you my new phone number as soon as I’ve got one.’ A thought occurred to me. ‘You wouldn’t give that to anyone would you? My new phone number I mean?’
“Of course not. As a client, your details are confidential.”
‘Thank you.’ I looked down at my hands, again relieved. Suddenly, unexplainably, I wanted to cry. I clutched my bag as tightly as possible and felt myself steady.
‘Mrs Harrison, is there....’
‘No, I’m fine.’ I knew what he was going to ask and I couldn’t bear it. Not now. ‘Do you have any other information on Frederick Hopmann yet?’
‘No more than what we originally knew, I’m afraid. We may probably never know why he left everything to you.’ He hesitated, seemed to cautiously feel his way. ‘Perhaps it would be best if you could just accept the legacy and not put yourself through the anxiety of trying to find out why. You’ll only upset yourself.’
It sounded kindly advice but it made me furiously angry. My hands shaking, I rose. “Thank you, Mr Jackson, I’ll be in touch when I get my new number.” And I raced out of his office, through reception, my head held high, looking straight ahead. I didn’t dare look at anybody. I was terrified I would lose the little self-control I had left and start sobbing in front of them.
By the time I got to my car, I was trembling. I wondered if this is what happened to people having a breakdown? I leaned against the car, gulping the cold air and lifted my head to the touch of the rain. I stilled, my face slowly dampening until one solid trickle ran down my cheek and continued down inside the collar of my coat. The small, cold touch settled me and strengthened my resolve again. Quietly, I unlocked the door, got in and headed towards Manurewa. I had a busy day with lots to do. At the first set of traffic lights, I took a small pad out of my bag and started to make a list. First on the list was to get a mobile phone. Open a new bank account with an ATM card and transfer the money from the trust account. This day-to-day detail was reassuringly normal and I was starting to look forward to my new life.
The house felt damp and unwelcoming. I convinced myself it was because it had been unlived in for a while and feverishly worked to unpack the car. It was desperately important to me to be out of the house before David suspected.
Surprisingly, it took two more carloads even though I had thought there was not much to take. My clothes took the most room because, instead of packing them into cartons or suitcases, I lay them across the back seat of the car. I put all my shoes into one carton and put that in the boot. But the time it took emptying the car at the other end frightened me. What if I hadn’t finished by the end of the day?
I brushed my hair back from my forehead, wiping perspiration with unsteady fingers. I’d been in a constant state of fear for days now and I was so tired of it. I knew that I was perilously close to giving up and the success of getting away depended on a clean cutting of the ties, today. Anything left behind today and I felt I had to leave it behind for good.
I was just turning into the drive to do the last car load, preoccupied with the thought of the garden tools I would need to tame the wild growth around the house, when I realised there was another car parked in the driveway.
I lurched to a stop halfway up the drive, my heart pounding, unsure what to do. If I backed up and drove away, it would look suspicious but I would get away. After all, I was meant to be at work. I certainly wasn’t dressed for work so I couldn’t pretend I had just dropped home to pick something up. My heart sank. I didn’t know who was here or what to say to them. I felt totally unprepared to handle anything unexpected.
I sat with the engine running, debating what to do when a figure came round the side of the house, spotted the car and walked purposefully towards to it.
‘Mrs Donna Harrison?’
‘No, I’m Sam.’
‘Oh.’ He seemed disappointed. ‘Would you have a sister-in-law called Donna? I’m trying to trace her.’
I started to shake. It was a mistake, he wasn’t even looking for me. ‘No, no I’ve never heard of a Donna. Sorry.’ And put the car in gear to continue up the drive, parking alongside the stranger’s car. As I climbed out, I noticed he had followed me.
‘I wonder if you might do me a favour?’
I felt so incredibly tired. I didn’t want to do a favour for this stranger or for anyone. I just wanted to get settled into my new life without any hassles. ‘Look, I’m a little busy at the moment. Perhaps you should talk to my husband.’
He slid a hand inside his jacket and pulled out a small notebook and pen. ‘Great, what’s his number? I’ll call him.’
Oh, God. He’d call David and I could just imagine the conversation. ‘I’ve just called in at your house and spoke to your wife.’
David would immediately know that I had been at home in the middle of the day. It would only take one call to work to find out that I had taken the day off. I felt sick. Forcing my face into the mask of a stiff smile, I asked ‘Why are you looking for Donna Harrison?’
Again he reached inside his jacket and pulled out a business card handed it to me. ‘My name’s Del, Del Connor. Since I retired, I’ve become a professional genealogist. I trace family trees and track down lost relations or even find relations you didn’t know you had.’ He grinned.
I stared at the card in my hand. ‘Do you mean you spend your time connecting people with the past?’
Green eyes smiled at me. ‘I guess that’s one way of putting it.’
‘Why didn’t you just phone?’
‘I did. Several times but you and your husband obviously work and you don’t have an answering machine at home. I was going past and thought I’d slip my card in the door for you to call me.’ He frowned and ran his fingers through thick brown hair. ‘Are you sure you’ve never heard of a Donna in the family? She’s the only one left to trace and I’m having a hell of a job tracking her down. She lived in this area until she was eight but I’ve had trouble finding her after her parent’s divorce and I thought I might strike it lucky. You know, people often return to live in the area they grew up in.’
‘No, I didn’t know that. And I’m sorry but there’s never been a mention of a Donna. My husband was an only child. Sorry.’
‘Well, it was a long shot. Thanks anyway.’ He turned to go.
He stopped, turned waiting for me to speak.
‘Do you do other things? I mean, for example, if someone inherited some things and didn’t know why, would you be able to trace the person who left them? Find out about them and who they were?’
He turned and walked back towards me. ‘That would depend.’
‘On how much information you had on them.’
‘What would you need?’
‘Full name, place and date of birth. Even better if you had the full names of both parents.’
My hopes died. ‘I see.’
‘I’ve found relations with a lot less than that. But it helps if you’ve got at least that.’
‘I’ll call you if I want to take it further.’
He looked down and I felt I’d disappointed him. ‘You enjoy what you do, don’t you?’
‘Yea. It’s kind of addictive. You see, it’s the missing pieces that drive you on. You build a picture of a life, hint by hint, by blurry photo and family gossip. They disappear for years, marry again, change their names and you lose them.’ He grinned. ‘It’s better than a detective novel. Don’t get me started on it. I’ll waste your whole afternoon.’
It was a timely reminder. ‘Can I give you a call if I can get more information?’
‘How much have you got?’
‘Just a name. And I don’t know if I can get more.’ Embarrassed, I thought he’d shrug me off.
‘Well, maybe I could help you find out more.’
I couldn’t help but smile at the barely concealed encouragement. It was hard not to smile back at a face with deep laughter lines around his eyes. He looked, I thought, a happy man. ‘I’ll think about it. I’ve got other things on my mind at the moment. I’ll call you if I decide to follow it up.’
‘Okay. You know where to find me.’
I watched him get into his car and drive off. I waved in response as he lifted his hand in a salute and turned back towards the house. Would you really want to dig things up about your family? Imagine the kind of information he must find. What if you found out something you’d rather not know? You can’t unknow something. Much better to let sleeping dogs lie in my opinion.
I put the last of the cartons in the boot and returned to the house. Slowly I walked through the rooms just looking. Every piece of furniture carried memories, every piece of china had a history. Over. It was all over.
The tears started as I tried to lock the back door. My eyes blurred and I scrabbled at the lock desperate to leave before the sobs burst from me. Suddenly, I realised I hadn’t left a note. There was no explanation, no reason for leaving. He would just discover that I’d gone.
I leaned my head against the door. But surely he’d guess why I’d left. He’d all but raped me for God’s sake! But maybe he’d think I’d just left for a while, that I was coming back. Was that fair? Leaving him wondering when I was coming home when I wasn’t?
Wasn’t I? Ever? What if he... but you can’t go back to what you were before. Not if you’ve become completely different. I pushed open the door and walked back in the house. I wouldn’t allow myself to begin to hope that he might change. This leaving was for good. In the lounge, I opened the desk and pulled out the writing pad and a pen. It was simple.
‘David, I will not endure this any longer. As you can see, I’ve left. You can have the house and everything in it. I no longer want it or the relationship you seem to think has improved for the better. Sam.’
I wanted to write that I hoped he would be all right but it didn’t seem appropriate given the circumstances. Leaving the note attached to the pad, I positioned it in the middle of the desk where David would be bound to see it.
This time as I locked the door, I was calm. I walked into the garage and took the cat box down off the shelf. Calling Marmaduke, I slid the cage door open. Marmaduke walked towards me then, on second thoughts, sat and looked around at the environment he was leaving.
I crouched down. ‘Come on Marmaduke, we’re going to make a new home. You’ll love it,’ I crooned. He stood, stretched and walked to me seeming to give his approval. I scooped him up and ignored the surprised howl from the big ginger cat as I pushed him into the cage. ‘It’s all right Marmaduke. It’s going to be all right.’
I backed down the drive and drove away from my comfortable life of the last eight years. I didn’t look back.
On my way through Manurewa, I stopped to get some groceries, realising that I had a brought a carton of cat food but had next to nothing for myself. I had checked that both the electricity and water were connected earlier. I bought a new mobile phone so I was connected to the world and registered it under my maiden name. Just to be sure.
When I finally turned into Philmore Terrace, I didn’t hesitate. My first act of ownership was to hurtle up the drive and park in front of the garage. Firstly, I got Marmaduke out of the car and took him inside. ‘See all the wonderful trees you’re going to have to climb? They’re full of birds, you know,’ I added, hoping he would settle in well. Above all, I needed some peace for a while. I needed to settle. A cantankerous cat wouldn’t help that process.
Once Marmaduke had recovered his dignity at being locked up, he started a cautious inspection of the house. Room by room, he warily inspected the furniture jumping on to the window sill to peer suspiciously out into the garden. Reasonably satisfied, he settled himself in a patch of sunlight and, keeping an eye on the garden, proceeded to wash his paws. I carried him through into the kitchen and poured a small saucer of milk for him. With a quick glance to make sure he hadn’t missed any enemies, he hunkered down and drank delicately from the edge of the bowl.
Exhausted, I stood looking around the kitchen. I’d left cartons along the wall and there were more in the car. I walked along opening the cupboards. They were mostly empty with the exception of a dinner set and a few groceries. What you’d expect to find if a person only ate in at breakfast.
The thought of eating food belonging to someone who’d died gave me the creeps. I didn’t try and explain it to myself I simply emptied the contents of the cupboards into the rubbish bin. There wasn’t much. Carefully shutting the door behind me so Marmaduke couldn’t get out, I wheeled the bin around the back of the house towards the garage, grabbing the set of keys as I went past the bench in case the garage was locked.
I pushed the bin against the wall of the garage, unsure which way the door opened and looked at the keys in my hands. None looked like it would fit the wide lock in the middle of the roller door. I took hold of the handle and pulled. The door moved and dropped back down again when I released it in surprise. Taking a firm grip, I lifted it again pulling it all the way and finally pushing until it was above my head.
The garage looked dark, damp and unkempt. Why did it feel as if something was not quite right? I walked into the garage and looked around. There was room for two cars or there would have been if it hadn’t been quite so full of junk.
The workbench under the window was strewn with tools amidst tubes, boxes and other clutter even though I noticed there were nails and hooks on the wall for all the tools. On the shelves above the window, I could see the corners of boxes jutting out. Piles of magazines and newspapers were everywhere. A lawnmower covered in dirt and lawn clippings huddled in the corner along with an old black bike. I moved forward to take a closer look at the bike but flat tyres and the lack of a chain, convinced me I wouldn’t be riding this old machine. From the mess of newspapers around the garage, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find them populated with mice. I closed the garage and decided to leave it for later. Much later. I simply didn’t have the energy to even begin to think about what to do with everything in there.
It wasn’t until after dark that the strangeness of the house began to spook me. I had always found the rustling of the wind through the trees soothing; now it sent shivers through me. I pulled the curtains securely, made a hot chocolate and pulled Marmaduke on to my lap. Finally, when it was time for bed, I stood in the bedroom doorway and wished I’d emptied all of Frederick’s things from the house before I’d moved in. The thought of sleeping in a dead man’s bed, on his sheets, between his blankets, made my skin crawl. In the end, I stayed dressed and pulled the quilt over me. Marmaduke, settling into the space behind my knees reassured me, and the strain of the day caught up with me as I fell into a deep, drugging sleep.
My dreams were full of David. He was searching for me, his fly open laughing at my terror. I tried running, my legs leaden, sucked into a mire of papers and mice. There were droppings everywhere, in the kitchen, in my bed and most disgustingly, in my clothes. When I opened the fridge, it was full of rotting, stinking food. Suddenly, I was back at the other house and knew David was coming for me. I pushed the key in the lock but it wouldn’t turn. I could hear his footsteps coming down the hall, he was taunting me. Desperately I wriggled the key. I could only leave if I could unlock the door and the key wouldn’t turn. Petrified, I watched as the door handle slowly turned and the door started to open.
I shot up in bed with a gasp, my heart pounding. I could smell the sweat, smell the fear. Still in the nightmare, I sat listening for the footsteps I was so sure were going to lead to utter terror. Slowly, I sat back, pulling the quilt tightly around me. And that’s where I was at dawn, sitting in a tight huddle at the top of the bed, staring wide-eyed out the window. I’d gotten up earlier and pulled back the curtains. Now I sat watching the indigo dawn streaked with hot pink across the dark sky. My vision blurred and I buried my head in the quilt, shoulders shaking. I’d never been so alone or so frightened in my life.
Along with the rising sun, came my practical side. “Tissues, I need tissues.” I sniffed. I thought it was about time I gave myself a good talking to. ‘Today, I’m going to buy lots of food that I’ve never tried before. A new life.’ I stroked Marmaduke until he rumbled with pleasure. ‘What do you say to a new life? Deal? Yea, right!’ I felt so weak, so useless. I didn’t know where I was or what I was supposed to be doing. ‘I’m so damned confused, Marmaduke. What if something goes wrong with the house? I don’t know how to fix anything. Not even a washer on a tap!’
I blew my nose into a tissue I’d dragged from my bag. ‘You’re right. We can do anything, right? Let’s go shopping,’ and marched determinedly towards the shower.
When I returned from the shops, I struggled up the pathway through the gate, happily loaded down with white plastic bags. This was normal life, this was control, this was taking responsibility for myself. I headed towards the back door and froze. An icy chill ran up my spine. Across the doormat was a small bouquet of deep purple violets.