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Short Story Club - 23 November

Read the story being discussed on Jesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 23 November 2017

RED CHRISTMAS

by Paula Morris

                                                                                                               

The evening before the inorganic rubbish collection, the three McGregor kids walked to Uncle Suli’s and asked to borrow his van.

Ani didn’t like asking Uncle Suli for things. It seemed like they were always there, crowded onto his peeling doorstep, waiting for the familiar dark shape to appear behind the frosted glass of the front door. He never said no to anything, not to requests for a loan of a sleeping bag when Tama had school camp, or to half a loaf of bread when they’d run out of everything at home except tomato sauce and there was no money left in the tin under the sink.

He’d signed school reports for them, and handed over creased copies of Saturday’s Herald. Sometimes there’d be something extra, unasked for — a calendar he’d got free at work, the occasional dollar coin for Henry. They always arrived with nothing and left with something. It was embarrassing.

‘Getting late for the kiddies to be out,’ said Uncle Suli, scrabbling for the keys in his back pocket. He wore his usual summer weekend outfit: loose canvas shorts and a polo shirt striped like a deck chair.

‘We won’t be long,’ said Ani.

He told them to try the streets on the harbour side of Te Atatu Road: they’d find a better class of rubbish there, though they were leaving it late, in his opinion.

‘The Islanders start cruising before lunch,’ he said. ‘Soon as church’s over. They’ll have picked through the lot by now.’

‘I don’t like going in daylight,’ said Ani, staring down at Uncle Suli’s feet: his toenails looked like pickled onions. ‘People watching you going through their stuff.’

‘They don’t want it, do they?’ said Uncle Suli.

‘I guess.’ Ani gripped the key ring tight, its feathery fuzz tickling her palm.

‘Everything all right at home?’

She shrugged.

‘Well, take care.’ He nodded towards the driveway and the dusty green van, the two boys smudged against its scuffed flank. Tama’s eyes were closed, and Henry was rolling his tongue around inside of his mouth. ‘Don’t want another accident.’

 ‘I don’t have accidents.’

‘You don’t have a licence. Here.’ Uncle Suli leaned towards her, pressing something crisp and papery into her hand: she glimpsed the blue corner of a ten-dollar note. ‘Buy yourselves something to eat. And if you see anything like a toilet seat or a sink, chuck it in the back. I’m after a new bathroom.’

‘Thanks, Uncle Suli,’ said Ani, signalling the boys into the van with a jingle of the keys. They clambered into the passenger side, Tama hoisting Henry up by the shorts. Ani leaned against their door to close it. Uncle Suli stood in the doorway, gazing up at the streaky sky.

 ‘Don’t forget my Christmas present!’ he called.

‘Did he give you some money?’ asked Tama, struggling with his seat belt.

‘Maybe.’ Ani shoved the gear stick into reverse and backed out of the driveway in rapid jerks.

‘Look,’ said Henry, who sat squashed in the middle, one scrawny leg pressed against the gear stick, jandals sliding off his feet. Uncle Suli was staggering towards the stumpy bushes of the front garden, miming a heart attack.

‘He was the one who taught me how to drive,’ said Ani. She rammed the gear stick into first and drove away up the hill, eyes narrowed against the glare of the dipping sun.

 

Almost every house had a stack of rubbish, but Uncle Suli was right: most of it looked picked through, pieces of wood and machine parts and broken toasters separated from their original tidy piles and scattered across the mown grass verges. He was right, too, about the class of rubbish. The inorganic rubbish collection in their own neighbourhood, two weeks ago, had been a waste of time; much of the debris still leaned against letterboxes, unwanted — a hunk of concrete base from an uprooted washing line, or a car door torn from an old Holden.

On the quiet streets on the water-side of Te Atatu Road, the stacks were higher and looked more inviting. People threw away whole appliances, not just broken parts; they carried corrugated iron and decking planks into the street, pushed out lawnmowers and old wheelbarrows. They dumped all sorts of useful things, like wire coat hangers and galvanized buckets and pieces of carpet. Last year, someone Tama knew at school had found a bin bag filled with rolled-up sports socks, every pair perfect.

On a long curving street where the back gardens tumbled down to the mangroves of the creek, the McGregor kids passed another van, an elderly Asian man sitting behind the wheel. Two younger men angled a washing machine through the rear doors.

‘Lucky,’ said Tama.

‘It’s probably broken,’ said Ani. ‘Seen anything, Eagle Eyes?’

Henry knelt on the seat, one hand on Ani’s shoulder, peering around her towards the footpath. He was the best at spotting useful objects obscured in piles of scrap. So far this evening, he’d found them a rake with only one broken tine, a director’s chair, and a bag of knitting needles.

Last December, he’d uncovered a ripped footstool and a box containing eighteen green glazed tiles. When they got home, their mother sat at the kitchen table fingering each tile as though it were a sea shell, arranging them into a perilous tower. They were too beautiful to use, she decided; she loved green, but they were too green. They reminded her of mussel shells, and of the sea at a place on the coast she visited as a child. They made her sad, she said, and Ani had to pack the tiles away and hide them in the carport.

‘There’s a lot of stuff there,’ Henry said, pointing down the street.

‘Quick,’ said Tama. He looked over his shoulder, craning to see the other van. ‘Before they catch up.’

Ani pulled up outside a dark brick house, its garden and driveway secured behind black wrought iron gates, a dog yelping from somewhere inside the house. Tama tore the pile apart, but careful Henry crouched with his back to the van, picking through the contents of a cardboard box. The house’s cobbled driveway led to a grey garage door, a striped basketball hoop fixed on the wall above. It looked like the kind of house that might have good rubbish, but you could never tell: often the shabbiest houses threw away the most. The poor were too lazy to fix things, according to Uncle Suli; that’s why they were poor.

Henry raced up, panting with excitement.

‘Here,’ he said, shoving things at Ani through the open window. He’d found a power strip and a small metal box, the kind they used for money and raffle tickets at the school gala. Ani wriggled around in her seat to dump them in the back.

‘Ani!’ Tama slapped the side of the van. ‘Open up the big doors.’

He sprang away, thudding off along the footpath to a house three doors down. By the time Ani swung the back doors open, Tama was weaving towards her like a drunkard to make her laugh, balancing a wooden step-ladder on his head.

‘I saw it,’ Henry told her.

‘Shut up,’ said Tama. He slid the step-ladder into the back of the van and pulled something out of his pocket. ‘Look at this.’

Cradled in his hands was a bud vase, its narrow flute a mosaic of green glass.

‘No chips or anything,’ he said. ‘Mum might like it.’

Their mother might be up when they got home, staring out the back window and dripping cigarette ash into the kitchen sink, or she might still be in bed, her face turned to the wall, one fingernail picking at a spot in the wallpaper where she said the pattern made an ugly face.

‘Shut the doors.’ Ani pulled herself up into the driver’s seat.

 ‘Move,’ said Tama, pushing Henry over. The van crawled away again, and he cradled the vase in his puddled sweatshirt on the floor.

‘I’m surprised they threw it away,’ said Ani. ‘Maybe they’ll change their minds.’

‘Too late.’

‘Feels a bit bad, though, stealing it.’

‘It’s not stealing.’ Tama lifted his feet onto the dashboard. ‘And if we don’t take it, the Chinks will.’

‘I guess,’ said Ani, slowing the van as they reached another half-toppled pile, in case Henry could make anything out in the mess.

 

The evening sky darkened to inky blue, splotched with stars. Ani drove the van down a long looping road, looking for the house they’d noticed last year. The rubbish wasn’t great, but the boys liked the front garden.

The house itself was small and expressionless, the kind of plain-faced brick house that looked as though the owners were always away on holiday. Flower beds edged a path twisting towards the terrace; a bridge humped over a tiny pond rosy with orange fish. A plaster gnome was seated, fishing line dangling, at the water’s edge. In their street, the gnome wouldn’t have lasted a week.

Any rubbish left out had already disappeared. The boys stood a footstep shy of the wall, surveying the garden as though they were prospective buyers. Tama planted his feet far apart: they seemed too big for his body. He was nearly as tall as Ani already, built on a larger scale. His father had lived with them for almost a year, off and on: he was the kind of man who filled a room, their mother said, and that’s how Ani remembered him — bulky and towering, wide as a doorway. He was nothing like her own father, who appeared slight, almost ill, in the one photograph she’d seen.

Henry looked more like her in some ways, lean and small for his age. Ani wasn’t sure about Henry’s father: Uncle Suli once called him a nasty piece of work, but that could have been any number of her mother’s friends. Henry’s skin was the darkest and Ani’s was the lightest. She looked jaundiced, her mother said, like she’d been dipped in cat’s piss. There was something of their mother in each of them, something around the eyes or the mouth that told strangers they were a family.

Behind the house, the harbour glinted beyond the dense mass of mangroves. The motorway was a string of lights stretching across the water towards the city. Ani hadn’t been to town in months, not since a school trip to the art gallery. Every trip she took was local — a bus to the mall, a walk to the dairy. Even these suburban streets in Te Atatu South, only minutes away from home in the van, felt like a foreign country.

If she drove away now, she could be downtown in fifteen minutes. Ani had never seen the open-air cafés of the Viaduct at night: there’d be candles on every table, wine glasses, white plates. Downtown was like television, bright and glamorous, humming with conversation and music. And beyond that was the rest of the country, a blur of green in her mind, indistinct and unknown. She could follow the snaking line of the Southern motorway to where the city climbed into the Bombay hills.

She’d have to leave the boys, of course — leave them right here, staring at the pond and the fishing gnome. Perhaps the old people who lived here would take them in. Tama was a hard worker: he could weed the garden, and fix things around the house, and they could send Henry out at night to crush snails. He was good at that.

But Ani knew that nobody would take them in. The people who lived here wouldn’t even invite them in for a mug of Milo; more likely they’d be calling the police to report two Māori kids messing up their neat front garden, trespassing on their front step. The boys wouldn’t stick around, either. They’d chase the van up the street, calling her name. They wouldn’t understand that they’d all be happier living somewhere else with new parents, a new school, a different name.  They’d find their way back eventually to the scruffy blue house where the cracks in the driveway spewed weeds, where everything needed picking up or putting right, where their mother would be waiting.

And there was Uncle Suli’s van, of course. He needed it because the buses, he said, were overpriced these days and, even worse, they were full of students, layabouts and foreigners.

Tama rapped on the glass and Ani wound down the window.

‘Turn the van around quick,’ he said. ‘The big house back there, see? They’re still putting stuff out.’

Ani jammed the van into reverse: it surged like an old sewing machine up to a big brick house they’d passed earlier. The boys ran alongside, Henry tripping out of his jandals, Tama racing ahead. They’d never got their hands on fresh rubbish before.

From the open garage, a grey-haired man in sweatpants and a young woman dragged rattling boxes onto the sloping driveway. A teenaged boy, jeans sliding off his backside, climbed out of a silver Pajero parked on the front lawn. It was hard to believe such a big car ever fit in such a cluttered space. Some people had more stuff crammed into their garage than the McGregor kids had in their whole house.

Tama and Henry lingered in the shadow of the van, waiting to pounce. The woman struggled up the driveway with a rusty pair of shears and a garden hose, its tail dragging along the concrete.

‘Damian, you carry the particle board,’ she called back to the boy. ‘It’s too heavy for Dad.’

Her father dumped a box full of jangling parts on the verge. Tama and Henry conferred; Henry shook his head. Damian loped up with an armful of cork tiles, glancing up at the parked van and the huddling boys, flashing them a grin. Ani wound down her window.

‘Get them,’ she hissed to Tama, and he dashed to the verge, scooping up the tiles. Damian returned with a giant square of particle board, leaning it against the front wall and hitching up his jeans.

‘It’s too big,’ Tama told her. ‘We’ll never get it through the doors.’

The boys made a few more quick raids, picking up a paint roller and tray, a tartan flask and a sagging shoebox packed with nuts and bolts. A car with a trailer had pulled up behind them and a man scuttled out, making for some lino off-cuts and the particle board. Tama scowled at him.

Damian lurched towards the verge, lowering a long folded screen with glass panels onto the ground.

‘This is the last of it,’ he said, to nobody in particular, and loped back down the driveway.

Henry sprang forward and threw himself onto the screen, his arms spread wide, guarding it with his entire body. The man jamming the particle board onto his trailer looked over, suspicious.

‘The doors,’ Tama told Ani. ‘Quick.’

Ani slid from her seat and scampered to the back of the van, flinging the back doors wide open. Tama lugged the screen towards the van, Henry darting around him, protecting the flank. One of the panels swung free, revealing a brown plastic handle. It was a folding shower door.

‘Well done,’ whispered Ani, helping Tama to slide the shower door in. She leaned over to unfold it: each section was perfect, ridged brown plastic with slender panels of nobbled amber glass.

 ‘Sure you want that?’ asked the man with the trailer, pointing an accusing finger towards the dusty back window.

‘Bugger off,’ said Tama, and they all scrambled back into the van.

‘We got Uncle Suli’s Christmas present,’ said Henry, drumming his heels against the bottom of the seat.

‘It doesn’t even look broken,’ said Tama. Last winter, he’d borrowed Uncle Suli’s saw and cut down a broken desk the Tongans across the street were throwing away: now they had a coffee table. Ani had thought about re-covering a stool they’d found, but a month ago her mother got upset with Henry walking in front of the television when Shortland Street was on, and slung the stool through a window. One of the legs snapped when it hit the window frame. Henry got five stitches that night: Ani hurried him up to the Emergency Clinic on Lincoln Road, a pyjama jacket wrapped tight around his punctures. When Uncle Suli knocked on the door later that week, wanting to know about the shattered window and Henry’s bandaged arm, she told him that Tama had been mucking about with a football.

‘Anyone hungry?’ Ani asked. ‘Who feels like pineapple fritters?’

She drove up the hill and turned left onto Te Atatu Road, driving faster now. If they hurried, they’d get to the fish and chip shop before it closed.

 

Uncle Suli’s ten-dollar note bought two pineapple fritters from the fish shop, one for each of the boys, and a bag of chips to share, with money left over for a loaf of bread from the dairy.

‘I’d rather have another bag of chips,’ said Henry, standing over the rubbish bin outside the dairy, nibbling the golden rim of his fritter.

 ‘Where’s everyone going?’ asked Tama, his mouth full. The people in the cars parked either side of the van were hurrying off down Roberts Road.

‘Maybe they’ve got good rubbish there,’ said Ani. She locked the van door and walked to the corner. Roberts Road was as packed as a carpark, groups of people strolling down the street towards a house burning with white lights, lit up like a stadium.

‘I know what this is,’ said Henry, scampering ahead. ‘It’s the Christmas house.’

He danced a few steps away and then zig-zagged back to slam against Tama.

 ‘Don’t muck about.’ Ani pushed them both past stopped cars towards an empty patch of fence.

The house glimmered as though it were studded with diamonds. A gaudy giant Santa perched on the garage roof, his sleigh hanging off the guttering, the reindeers’ antlers blinking candy stripes of red and white. Icing-sugar frost sprinkled the grass. The tiny front garden was mobbed with displays — an illuminated snowman, a waving penguin, a model train zipping around an ornamental pond. Even the Norfolk pine was festooned with giant red baubles and drooping lines of lights.

Ani had never seen a house covered in Christmas lights. She’d thought that only shops got decorations, holly and snowflakes spray-painted on their windows, artificial greenery swagged across their counters. The rest of the year, this place probably looked like any other suburban house — parched weatherboards and sandy tile roof, tight-lipped Venetians closed against the sun. But dressed up for Christmas, it looked like a palace.

‘Wait till we tell Uncle Suli about this,’ said Henry.

‘They must be made of money,’ growled Tama in Uncle Suli’s voice, and they all laughed.

Some people were brazen, opening the gate and walking into the front garden to admire the decorations close up. A man clasping a pug dog leaned over the terrace railing to shake someone’s hand. The McGregor kids stayed on the other side of the fence, eating the last of the chips. A loudspeaker rigged to the garage door broadcast a tinny-sounding ‘White Christmas.’

‘In Iceland,’ Ani told the boys, ‘when it doesn’t snow, they call it Red Christmas.’

‘Why?’ Henry’s mouth glistened with fritter grease.

‘Not sure,’ she said. It was something she’d heard at school, from a geography teacher. He’d been to Iceland to look at their volcanoes and glaciers, because they were different, in some way, from the volcanoes and glaciers here. Ani knew what volcanoes looked like: ordinary green lumps, neutered and serene, lay all over the city. But she’d never seen a glacier. She’d never seen snow anywhere but on TV.

‘Red Christmas,’ said Tama. ‘We have one of those every year. We don’t need to go to Iceland.’

‘Come on,’ said Ani. She reached out a hand to stroke Tama’s hair, but let it fall on his shoulder. ‘We better be getting the van back.’

Tama nodded, but he didn’t adjust his grip on the fence or on the ripped piece of newsprint, spotted with grease from the chips, still pinched between his fingers. His gaze followed the miniature train chugging along the circular track around the fish pond, its caboose painted a cheery yellow, a wisp of silver tinsel poking from the funnel.

‘Can we stay a bit longer?’ asked Henry.

‘Two more minutes,’ she said.

Although Uncle Suli wouldn’t be annoyed however late they arrived, she was suddenly eager to go, to pull the van into his driveway, to see the look on his face when they unloaded the shower door. And when they got back to their house, if they were lucky, their mother would be asleep. They could stow everything in the carport until morning. If she was asleep, it wouldn’t be like the time they brought home the glass bowl. She wouldn’t have the chance to smash it to pieces; she wouldn’t slice Henry’s fingers, or half-scalp Tama, or slash Ani’s clothes — with Ani still in them, thin ribbons of blood lacing her like a corset. The vase could be hidden, maybe even till Christmas. None of the kids would breathe a word. They wouldn’t tell a soul, not even Uncle Suli. All three of them were good at keeping secrets.

 

‘Red Christmas’ © Paula Morris, 2007.

Paula’s most recent publication is the collection False River, 2017.

Formats & editions

  • Trade Paperback

    9780143771630

    October 30, 2017

    Penguin

    RRP $35.00

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False River Paula Morris

Superb writing from a fiercely intelligent writer in the vanguard of New Zealand literature.

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