I loved the walk along the beach. If you could have seen me dragging my big toe, making drag marks in the wet sand, you would’ve thought me carefree. I savoured every moment, almost as if I knew that this would be the last peace of mind I would have for a long time. I slipped off my sandals and wandered along the water’s edge, jumping every now and then to avoid the larger waves. I loved how the force of the waves, dumped and churned up the sand on the bottom of the ocean. They curled up out of the water, grey with sand and exploded back into the sea again, creating a boiling cauldron of swirling, cream foam. It didn’t look that clean, but it was exhilarating. It was so beautiful, so alive. I felt good just being there. I now understood better what Kiri meant by the trees being her Valium. The beach was certainly mine. My mind was clear as I walked along the sparkling, black sand, an indicator of the volcanic nature of this country. Great on a cold day, as a small amount of sunshine would turn it into a warm blanket to sit on. Burning hot on a summer’s day, causing parents and children alike to race down to the cool, wet sand at the edge of the sea to avoid burnt feet because no-one wore shoes to the beach. Bare feet was a way of life in New Zealand.
What that a very passive life I’d had. I’d not only been passive in lack of action, but also in lack of desire, lack of decision. All my life, everyone had made my decisions for me and I hadn’t minded, I had simply accepted. In fact, the thought of making my own decisions, terrified me. I stopped in my tracks as I ran through the kind of decisions I was now going to have to make. The waves swirled around my ankles and I sank a bit deeper into the wet sand. I didn’t feel informed enough, qualified enough, to have lived a life big enough to make big decisions. Inevitably, I turned to what would David have done. What would papa have done? And then finally, what would mama have done? Brian said she was fun and creative. What if there was more of her in me than I had ever suspected? What would she do? A voice in my head said she would move forward until she had to make the first decision. Tension drained from me, down through my legs and out into the ocean. Maybe, it was just that simple. What do I want to do? Decide, move towards it, then make the decisions as they came along? If I made mistakes, it doesn’t really matter. I’m the only one who’ll have to pay the price. And it will simply lead to a new decision.
I walked up the beach and sat down, back from the ocean in the dry, soft sand. I took my mobile out of my bag and phoned David before I could change my mind. When he answered, it took a heartbeat before I could say, “Hi, it’s me.”
“Sam? Is that you? You sound different. Are you okay?”
“I’m getting there. How are you?”
“I’m okay, but I’ve been sick out of my mind with worry. What has happened to you? For God’s sake, Sam, to come home like that and find a dark house and a note. All a bit melodramatic wasn’t it? And where are you?”
“At the beach,” I replied without thinking.
“I meant, where are you living? Have you moved in with him?”
“With whom?” It took me a minute before I realised who he was talking about. “Frederick Hopmann, are you talking about Frederick?”
“Yea, good old Fred. Is that where you are?”
“David, he’s dead! He left me the house because he died! What has got into you?” Then I remembered my friend’s description of the illness and felt dreadful. I was yelling at a sick man. Not physically sick, but sick all the same. “Come on David,” I said more calmly, “what’s got into you is more the point isn’t it?”
“Look Sam, why don’t you just come home and we can talk about it. I thought our sex life had got a new lease of life, but if you didn’t like it, we can always talk about it. For goodness sake, you don’t have to do the whole dramatic departure thing.”
Something about his tone wasn’t right. “We can talk now David, there’s no need for me to come home to talk. What did you want to discuss? Your behaviour, shall we start with that?”
“What did I do that was so bad? Typical, give them what they want and they whinge.”
“David! Where is this cynical tone coming from? This isn’t you!” Couldn’t he see that? There was silence.
“I’m sorry. It’s being without you. You’re my foundation, surely you know that, Sam. I’m a bit lost without you. Come home, Sam. We can work this out.”
I could see him, standing at the phone. I could pretty much guess what he was wearing and he was so lovingly familiar. My life. My heart was being wrenched from me. “Oh David, if only it was that simple.”
“Well, stuff you then! You’re not going to make me beg. You can get stuffed!” His tone sounded all the more vicious because he spoke quietly. He slammed the receiver down and I sat there, stunned. Where had that streak of temper come from? David had never lost his temper with me in all our married life together. Controlling yes, stern yes, but never anger. Never. I clicked the phone off and put it back in my handbag, grateful that I had called him on the landline and he didn’t have my mobile number so he could call me back when he had calmed down. Slowly, I got up off the sand and made my way back to my car. I had a deep certainty that moving out so quickly was the right thing to do. I remembered what it had been like, waiting for him to come home, to see what mood he was in, how he would be acting. I couldn’t have lived like that and it was clear that whatever space David was in, it wasn’t a pleasant one. I was filled with sadness. Sad for him, sad for me, sad for how our marriage had ended. Because while he continued to act like this, we did not have a marriage, I would not go back.
The wind was spraying sand at me and I shivered. I walked back to the car and sat there for a while, thinking about what Anita had told me. Watching the waves crashing and curling, I knew what it was to be out there in that cold water, in that turbulence. I watched the seagulls diving, shrieking, fighting over food scraps and weariness seeped through me. I had no fight left in me, no resilience to stand up to David, to discover more about Frederick. I was exhausted. Again. My phone rang, making me jump. How had he got the number? No, I shook myself, it couldn’t be David.
“Sam, it’s Anita. How are you?”
“Terrible, I’ve just spoken to David. It was horrible. It’s not him Anita. It’s just not him.” Tears spilled down my cheeks. “What’s happened to him?”
“I know. If what I suspect is true, this is a side of him you’ve never seen before. Stay away, girl. Get your own life together. Talking about that, I have to come out your way to visit my brother and his wife. They’ve just had a baby and I’m heading out to see them. I thought we could meet for a coffee later this afternoon. And it would do you good to talk about it. I want to hear everything he said. What do you think? You sound like you need something to distract you.”
I hesitated, feeling uneasy. The temptation was to say no, to go back to the house, turn on the TV and do nothing for the rest of the day. That’s what I wanted to do. “That would be great,” I decided, “but I don’t really want to talk too much about David. I know, tell me where we can meet and I’ll go shopping first to make myself feel better,” I added defiantly. Anita described the layout of the mall and it sounded pretty easy to find the coffee shop. We arranged a time and she rang off. I sat there a little longer, regaining my composure. Trying not to think about David and his sneering tone, to think about me.
What did the new me do when she was feeling a bit down? Yes, she definitely went shopping I decided as I backed the car carefully out of the car park. Even in the winter, the car park was half full. Kiwis loved the beach as much in the winter as in the summer. While the Australians may have perfected the image of the summer beach, Kiwis relished the wild, winter weather. Searching for odd-shaped driftwood, whipped by the wind and flying sand, putting life back into perspective, they were tough against the cold weather, a trait inherited from their pioneering ancestors. Anyone who had chosen to emigrate to New Zealand in the old days, had to be self-reliant in order to survive in such a distant and unknown land. Once you were here, you couldn’t go back. You had to make it work. I was too aware of the irony.
Enough. I would go shopping for something I would never have worn in my previous life. The thought cheered me up and I was still enjoying the sense of anticipation when I arrived at the mall.
By the time I made my way to the coffee shop, I had on a new pair of jeans, tight jeans. I had only ever worn jeans in the garden and then they were navy blue and I had ironed a sharp seam down the front. They were always neatly ironed - that was the only way that David would let me wear them. He would have been horrified to see me now! My new jeans were faded, the pattern on the back pockets sparkling with bling and they were tight and I felt great in them. So good, I dumped what I had been wearing and wore my new clothes. I felt like some new exotic creature. And of course, I needed tops to go with my new jeans. And I needed a second pair, make that three pairs because I couldn’t live in one pair all the time, could I? And nothing I had would go with them so then I needed the right shoes, earrings and a new bag. The girl in the shop was as excited as I was at this unexpected chance of a makeover. I loved the way she seemed to be able to add layer on layer, it just worked. I looked at myself in the mirror amazed. I was a bit embarrassed with so many shopping bags and, feeling a bit guilty, I raced back to leave them in the boot of the car. I was just going to enter the coffee shop still a bit early, when I noticed a sign in the bookshop opposite, Help Wanted.
By the time, I met with Anita, not only did I have a new wardrobe, I had a new part-time job as well, in a bookshop. How wonderful. I was feeling very pleased with myself and it must have showed.
“Well, look at you! I thought I was meeting someone who needed cheering up, but you look very pleased with yourself. Come on, spill the beans, what have you been up to? Apart from your new gear! I like!”
I grinned, turned slightly and wriggled my bum before sliding into my chair. “Behold, the new me, via my new jeans. Apparently, they are right on trend and everyone will be wanting a pair this season. No make that, will be needing a pair like this. I feel great in them. One more move to finding the new me.” I realised how exuberant I sounded and fidgeted nervously with the menu, I didn’t want to launch into my new life by boasting. But Anita’s response surprised me.
“Good for you! I’ve always thought that you don’t make enough of that great body of yours. Mind you, it might be a good idea to take things slowly at first, Sam. Don’t dive in and change too much, too quickly. You need to pace yourself after what you’ve been through.”
I could feel the heat rising in my face. Great body, I’d certainly never heard that before. “But, Anita, I feel great!”
“Okay, what else did you get, I’m guessing there’s more. Come on, tell me all.”
I told her about the other jeans, black this time and the four tops I’d bought to go with them. Then there was the bag, the shoes and the drop-dead gorgeous boots. “And, I’ve got a new job.” I pointed to the bookshop across the mall, which incidentally no longer had the Help Wanted sign in the window any more.
Anita looked startled. And for a moment, I thought I saw something darken her face and then it was gone. I was starting to imagine things everywhere.
“God, you don’t mess about do you! When you make a decision, you go all the way. But, we’ll miss you at the Uni.”
Her concern warmed me. “Oh my God, I had completely forgotten about that.” I giggled. “Oops, I forgot I already have a job. But, you know, after talking to David today, I couldn’t go back to where he could find me. He’s become too unpredictable.” I told her about our conversation. Anita pressed me for every detail, every nuance in what David said. Her intense interest made me uncomfortable, but as this was Anita’s area, obviously she was keen to hear a real-life case study. When I thought about it afterwards, I was surprised she didn’t take notes!
“That certainly sounds like a real change of personality to me. It could be a number of things, but there’s no doubt about one thing, it’s not a good idea to be around him. I think you did the right thing in moving out. I’ve seen too many people suffering at the hands of a manipulative family member. You were smart to get out when you did. What are you going to do about him?”
“Well, I’ll continue to talk to him. I’d love him to realise that he’s changed and needs help. I’ll keep trying. I owe him at least that.”
“And what about the famous Frederick? Have you found out anything more about him? Any further clues as to who he might be?”
“Nothing, I’m getting a big blank nothing. But,” I blurted out, “I found out so much from Brian about our life before we moved here. In Germany.”
Anita moved forward eagerly. “What did you learn? Does he remember your mother’s murder?”
Repelled, I felt the same caution I had felt with David. For some reason, I simply didn’t want to go there. It was disturbing because I trusted Anita. She was the only person who had my mobile number. She knew where I lived and she knew where I worked. But all the same, I just didn’t want to share what Brian had told me. “Oh, you know, small details, my dolls, my bad behaviour when we left. That sort of thing.” I changed the subject by ordering coffee.
It turned out to be what I’ve always thought of as a very girly meeting. Anita changed gear, lightened up and we made up life stories for the people at the other tables and most of all, we laughed. It was good. I’d always disapproved of girly meetings. You’d see groups of them in coffee shops, wasting time and being shallow, or so I’d thought. How could I not have seen the fun behind these groups? Why did I always take everything so seriously? The only time things turned serious again, was when Anita returned once more to the subject of Frederick. I dismissed him with my new found confidence and changed the subject back to clothes again. I was discovering a whole new frivolous side and I just wanted to revel in it for a while. I saw her frown, but then she seemed to shrug off her concern and allow me to once again wallow in feminine frippery.
By the time I got back home, I was humming with the radio. That was something else I wanted to do, buy more CDs so I could listen to more music. I was going through my money at a rate of knots. The new part-time job would help. But I knew what would happen, I’d start buying books and that would cut into my pay. Never mind, I would cross that bridge when I came to it. I was running possible numbers in my mind, when I pulled up my drive.
Loaded down with glorious bags of shopping, and juggling the back door key, it slowly filtered through my euphoric brain that something felt wrong. Something was missing. I stopped, ran a check through my mind, glancing around me trying to pin down what was unsettling me. I carried the bags inside and was about to shut the back door, when I realised, Marmaduke wasn’t there to greet me. I walked outside and called him. Fear shot through me and I called him again. Suddenly, the bushes parted and his fat little body shot out of hiding, raced past me and disappeared inside. “Marmaduke! What’s wrong with you?” I followed him inside, again carefully locking the back door behind me. I couldn’t find him. Alarmed, I called his name as I searched. I heard a small noise as I went into my bedroom. I crouched down and lifted the quilt to peer under the bed. It was dark, but I could see light glinting from golden eyes. I called him again and realised that he was cleaning himself. I called a bit more insistently this time. He totally ignored me.
What had happened? Had he got into a fight with another cat from the neighbourhood? He wasn’t a fighting cat, but his weight would have given him an advantage in a scrap, I reassured myself. But what if he’s hurt. I had to get him out from under the bed to make sure he wasn’t hurt. I raced out to the kitchen to get some fresh food to put into his bowl. Nice runny gravy, just the way he liked it. Visions of intestines falling out of a stomach ripped open by sharp claws competed with pictures of his blood-soaked body. I placed the food on the floor by the bed and called him again. I pulled the quilt up out of the road, and tempted him with a full description of the tasty and delicious treat waiting for him. He decided to reward my efforts and came out, shaking himself once out from under the bed. He settled down over the bowl and started eating, daintily and carefully. It was one of the things I loved about him. Probably, why he was fat, because I so loved to watch him eat.
I looked him over while he was eating, relieved when his little purring motor started up. I reached out and stroked him, and carefully felt his body, checking him for dampness which could indicate blood or saliva. Nothing. “What happened, Marmaduke? Why were you so scared? What happened while mamma was away?”
After having his fill, he sat there and continued to clean himself. I sat on the floor and watched him until he strolled over and rubbed himself against me. Back to his normal self again. What had happened? Should I leave him inside from now on? But Marmaduke was more of an outdoor cat who loved stalking birds. He’d brought a cricket inside once, but David had put his foot down the day he came back home with a giant weta in his mouth. Even I had shivered at the thought of the large, spiky insect in the house. The weta is known as the largest insect in the world that can still fly. I simply know it as one that can inflict a nasty scratch and up close, looks like something from a horror movie. David had never liked cats and this gave him the perfect excuse to ban Marmaduke from coming inside. I loved him, but I couldn’t protect him by locking him inside, it wouldn’t be fair.
And then I remembered, I had seen Marmaduke react this way once before - it was when David had kicked him. I was horrified when David had lashed out and his foot had connected. He had said that he’d hardly touched him, but Marmaduke had raced into the bedroom and wouldn’t come out from under the bed. I left him there because David had become really annoyed at me. Fussing, he’d called it. It was the closest we’d come to having a real argument. I’d told him he was never, ever to do that again. And he hadn’t. But this is how Marmaduke was behaving again. Had someone kicked him? Or frightened him? Had someone been around the house again while I was out? I wondered if Marmaduke had walked up to them, rubbed against them thinking they were going to let him in and they lashed out. Kicked him and kicked him hard by the look of his reaction. Who would do such a thing? No, I’m letting my imagination run away with me again. He must have got into a fight with a local tomcat.
I was trying on my new tops and trying hard not to feel guilty, when there was a knock on my door. I froze. Automatically, I looked at Marmaduke, but he was totally absorbed in his grooming. My intruder detector says it’s okay. I grinned, feeling foolish at how little it took to spook me these days.
I could see a figure through the glass as I lifted the key from its hook and opened the door.
“A chain on the door is probably a good idea, too.” This time, he was fully dressed, but the broadness of his shoulders, the tightness of his jeans around his thighs, still gave the impression of muscled strength.
“Hi. I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name. I’m Sam.”
“Johnnie. Johnnie Wills. I just called to see if you’re okay.”
“Yes, I’m fine. I went to the police station like you said. They weren’t very impressed with the fact that I hadn’t called them at the time. Isn’t it weird that it never occurred to me to call them? And yet I was so frightened. I was terrified,” I admitted ruefully.
“Sometimes that happens. When you get really scared, your brain doesn’t work. That’s why some of those cop shows on TV aren’t real. Everyone always seems to know what to do in an emergency. Most people just freeze. So you’re okay? Nothing else has happened?”
I opened my mouth to say about Marmaduke, but caught myself in time. How stupid would that sound! “No, I’m…” How was I? Really? “I’m getting there.”
An approving nod. “Good for you.” He turned to go.
“Would you like to come in for a coffee?” My stomach lurched. What was I doing? It must have been the new jeans.
He frowned, searching my face. “Are you sure?”
I like how he waited. No pressure, no politeness, he just waited. “Yes, I’m sure. Come and have a coffee.” I stood back to allow him to walk past me. “Or would you rather have a beer?” Aghast, I wondered if I had made a mistake. “That is if you drink, That exercise you were doing, was that part of an Eastern religion? I mean, I won’t feel offended if you say no.”
“A beer would be great, if you have one.”
So normal, it was bliss. I opened him a beer and gave him the bottle. I poured myself a red wine and I followed him to the table. He seated himself at the kitchen table. Normal. Amazing how tight jeans can give you courage. Brave enough to be nosy. “So, what was that you were doing, you know, the exercise? Your practice.” Suddenly, it seemed to come together. “Are you a cop?”
“Used to be. Then I got hurt, badly hurt. And I had to exercise to rebuild strength, then flexibility. I started with a yoga regime then, as I got stronger, moved up to karate. It’s all helped.” He took a swig from his beer. “In fact, I’m probably in better shape now than when I was on the job. What do you do?”
“I work in a bookshop. Actually, I used to …” Then I remembered that I had a new job. I said it again with renewed confidence. “Yes, I do. I work in a bookshop. I just got a new job, down in the mall.”
“So, have you found out who this Frederick is?”
“Frederick Hopmann. Well, now there’s a mystery I could use a good investigative brain on. He left me this house, you know, and I don’t know who he is.” A slight movement brought my attention back to Johnny. Somehow I knew he was now totally alert.
“That seems a bit weird. Was it done through a lawyer? Was it kosher?”
“Yes, but the lawyer didn’t tell me much at all. I’m going to go back and ask a lot more questions. But…” I hesitated, reluctant to sound more paranoid than I had already appeared to him.
“But what? Tell me.”
“It seemed to me that the house hadn’t actually been lived in. It’s as if it had been made to look as if someone lived here. Does that sound paranoid to you?”
“What made you think that?” He took another swig at his beer and I knew I had his full attention. It was fascinating. It was almost as if his whole system was on alert, and yet he hadn’t moved or changed position. I could just sense his focus. I wondered if he had been a workaholic when he was a cop. It was like a miner on the path of a new mineral vein. “Well, come and look at this. They told me that no-one had been in the house after he died, but look at those patches on the wall.”
He walked over and looked at the place I was pointing at.
“There are two more over there.”
“You’re right, there’ve been pictures hanging on those walls long enough for the wood to fade around them. Someone’s removed them.”
“And,” I added, excited to share this with someone, “the doors were all closed. It was as if the house had been carefully shut up. And there was no linen in the linen cupboard, which had also been dusted clean. But the bathroom was overflowing with a man’s toiletries. There were clothes in the wardrobe and drawers, but no personal papers anywhere. And there were well-read generic books, like you’d see in a motel,” I finished lamely. Somehow, it didn’t seem too eerie when you said it out loud as it had when I’d experienced it.
I followed him out of the room and down the hallway, watching as he walked into each room, scanning the room for, for what? Clues?
“Is this your furniture, or was it already here?”
“It was here. I’ve got new bedding and a new dinner set in the kitchen. It gave me the creeps of sleeping in a dead man’s bed. What do you think?”
He stopped and turned to face me, eyes narrowed, the sign of an analytical brain at work. “What did you do with the clothes?”
“I put them in bags and took them to St Vinnie’s. Damn! I never thought, but of course, they could’ve given some clues to the man. But they were so…” I searched for the right words. “Like the books, normal, average, non-descript. I went through the pockets as I packed them but there was nothing.”
He turned and walked back into the lounge and stood looking at the walls with the faded patches. “What happened the night you had the intruder?”
I told him everything. Every detail I could remember. I felt like I was talking to a lifelong best friend and had to keep reminding myself, that he was just a neighbour. A friendly one, but a new neighbour for all that. “Am I being fanciful?” a favourite word of my father’s for me. “Am I connecting dots, which don’t connect?”
He finished his beer. “I have a healthy respect for women’s intuition and I think you should be visiting that lawyer and finding out as much as you can about the man. You’re right, something doesn’t seem to sit right.”
After he’d gone, I poured myself another glass of wine, pleased with my whole day. The warm glow I felt might have had something to do with the new jeans, but I think it was more likely that Johnnie took me seriously and believed me. And that he had reminded me to call him if anything else should happen. He wrote it down again on my post-it note on the bench and attached it to one of the cupboards. “Just in case,” he said over his shoulder as he walked out the door, leaving the room feel suddenly empty.