Read the story being discussed on Jesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 5 April 2018
I was sitting at my desk. It was a cold morning in June. The wind was rattling the windows and the rain had bits of hail in it. I was watching my neighbour, Ron Cassidy. He was up on his roof trying to fix a loose bit of iron. The wind was blowing his sweatshirt up over his broad, pale, freckled back. He was wearing shorts, calf-length socks and carpet slippers. His feet were slipping about on the wet iron.
I’ve lived here for five years. I live by myself, with two cats. There are the Cassidys on one side, and on the other a friendly old couple I don’t talk to much. We say hello on the driveway. I’m on good terms with the man down the back. We sometimes have a chat. But it’s the Cassidys I talk to most. As soon as I moved in here we started having words.
Ron Cassidy used to be an athlete a long time ago. He never managed to find anything to do after his sporting career was finished. These days he presents himself as a sort of builder or odd-job man. He has a battered truck filled with paints and hardware and tools, a trailer attached to it, piled high with more odds and ends. Often he sets off in this vehicle looking purposeful, only to return a short time later, perhaps with more junk piled on his trailer, or less junk, or the junk rearranged. Some afternoons he ties junk to his trailer and moves it from one end of the driveway to the other. He is always trotting around his property with some kind of appliance, repeating, mechanically, to anyone who comes near, ‘It’s got to be done. It’s got to be done.’ And everything he does makes his house older, messier, sadder, closer to being ruined.
One day he unloaded an ancient portable generator from his trailer. He set it up under my bedroom window and attached it to a high-pressure hose. Then he ran the generator continuously for two days, while he water-blasted his roof. It was so loud I couldn’t shut it out of any part of my house. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t read. At the end of the second day he’d scoured the paint off half his roof. He stopped work and took the generator away. Months later, the roof is still half scoured and half covered in old paint. The walls of the house are also half painted. At the front a set of windows is covered in black polythene, half fixed. He has a homemade security gate, half of which is broken.
Under the house is Ron’s workshop. This neon-lit, cobwebby basement, full of dead machinery, is where he and his son Blake apply themselves to their most serious passion: tinkering with cars. I have sometimes sat here working while Blake and his dad have sawed a car in half. When they stop work I can hear the murmur of their earnest talk. Something like: ‘Yeah, the fuggin. Yeah. The wrench. The fuggin wrench. Yeah. The fuggin.’
They have the usual trouble with their tools. Whole days are devoted to fixing the dodgy saw they’ve borrowed to cut the car in half. In the evenings young Blake, an apprentice mechanic, likes to invite his friends over. After the traffic has died down in the street, after the long and stressful day, I relax to the sound of Blake’s engine, with its souped-up oversized exhaust being revved into a scream, until it sounds as if it’s begging for mercy. The youths cluster around the open bonnet, humourlessly smoking. In the lull after the screaming the car steams, its guts splayed — the tortured corpse. Blake’s face is intent, white, tiny-eyed. Sometimes he breaks into a sharp-toothed grin: ‘Eh! Look a’ that!’ As he might have done when the kitten exploded that time, when the puppy sighed and died, when the helpless thing he was fucking with finally gave up the ghost, and whimpered no more, and hung limp from the clothesline . . .
Oddly, I don’t hate Blake. (I do hate his parents. I do.) Once, when I’d been in the paper and on TV, Blake went through a phase of greeting me in the street. He did a sort of wave — ceremonious. It was my being on TV that did it. I’m sure TV is the ultimate reality for Blake. Reading and writing are not his thing. Once he put a sign on an old car he’d dumped outside my house: ‘Some FCKWIT stole my plates. Please RETURE.’ He has a large tattoo on one arm and clumsy, boyish hands. It’s hard to hate a boy. It’s hard to hate a boy who can’t spell ‘return’.
Anyway, you’d think from all this that I live somewhere a bit scruffy, wouldn’t you? Somewhere out west, or quite far south? Henderson, Mangere. But no. The Cassidys live in Remuera. We live in Remuera. It’s not supposed to be like this.
So we have words. I’m no shrinking violet. I’m a writer, and I need quiet. (I’ve had a reasonably successful career. I’m old now, and a few people know my name.) Like Ron Cassidy, I need to be home all day. Unlike him, I like getting a bit of work done. And I’ve done a fair bit of raging out into the drive and telling them to turn down or off whatever machine they’re operating.
But the thing about the Cassidys, apart from their living in Remuera and being so disreputable, is that they’re fantastically paranoid and aggressive. If you complain, they do not apologise. They rear up and fight back. And if I’ve ever taken any direct action (sometimes I write angry letters; once, despairing, I threw two large tomatoes at the revving youths) they’re not slow to take revenge. My car has been attacked with a brick, my windscreen wipers stolen. My tomatoes arrived back on my doorstep soon after, accompanied by a mountain of rubbish.
Mrs Cassidy — Glenda — who works in a bank, is as sharp and stringy as her husband is flabby and dull. She’s not above leaning over the fence and giving me what for, when I’ve been cramping Ron and Blake’s style with some mean-minded complaint. She stands by her men. She has a great sense of drama, and is always scurrying out to see what I’ve done to Ron and Blake this time. Sometimes I get a cold feeling when I’m out, and turn, and there is terrible Glenda, stooped, pitched sideways with the strain of the blackest scowl she can sustain without turning her face inside out.
The tumbledown house, moody Blake, glowering Glenda, moronic Ron, the piles of junk on Ron’s trailer going back and forth all day — all of this has unsettled me so much that I’ve often thought of moving. I haven’t managed to yet, even though I’ve been so sorely tried.
The Cassidys’ latest trick (revenge for one of my complaints) is to park a couple of derelict cars outside my house so I have nowhere to park my own. They’re always ‘trailing their coat’, as the Irish saying goes. They’re always itching for a fight . . .
It was a cold June morning. I was sitting at my desk watching Ron Cassidy fixing a loose bit of iron on his roof. The wind rattled the windows and the rain had bits of hail in it. Ron was wearing carpet slippers. His feet slipped about on the iron. I started writing: an elderly woman was sitting in her house. She was watching her neighbour, an aggressive, unpleasant man who, for years, had made her life difficult. She was thinking about hate. She was thinking: there are very few people I hate, but that man is one of them. He has made me unhappy in my own house. And he hates me. She thought: if this were the Balkans or Rwanda, if society broke down and that man suddenly had the opportunity, he would kill me. Given the chance, I wouldn’t kill him, even though I hate him, because I am a better class of person. But he would kill me.
She watched him sliding about on the roof. He had a hammer and a mouthful of nails and he was trying to hold down a section of iron. The wind tore at his clothes and hair. He slipped, threw up his arms and dropped the hammer. She saw him catch hold of a rusty overflow pipe to steady himself. It broke and came away. He teetered for a second, his body twisting, his hands clutching the air. The pipe tilted with him. There was a scattering of pieces of iron, nails, broken pipe. The wind got under the iron and made it shriek. He fell into the yard below. She heard his heavy body hit the concrete.
She sat still. Some minutes went by. No one came out to help him. No one was home over there. She could see his legs. She waited, looking at his legs. They didn’t move. It started raining hard. He lay in the rain. She felt very strange sitting there, looking at her neighbour’s legs. She picked up her coat and umbrella and went slowly out into the street. She stood outside her gate, the rain drumming on her umbrella. She got in her car and drove away.
The Writers’ Festival was on. There had already been two days of appearances by local and overseas writers. At three that afternoon I was to appear in An Hour With Celia Myers, in which I would talk about my career and read from my work. I’d already chaired a session with three young women novelists, and taken part in panel discussions with some overseas writers. It had all gone well. The sessions were lively, and I’d managed to avoid any disasters or embarrassments. I’d been told that my Hour With session had sold reasonably well. I enjoyed festivals. My books were especially popular with women. After the session with the young novelists the crowd had been enthusiastic, and I’d realised how much I enjoyed the crush, the warmth of all those bodies pressing towards us. I live alone. My husband died years ago, and my daughters, Dee and Viola, have long since grown up. Mostly it suits me, being alone. But I crave the human touch.
I left my car in the parking building and walked down to the Hilton. The cold rain was sheeting down, but the Hilton was the perfect place to be on such a melancholy afternoon. The building was at the end of the wharf and the windows looked out onto the harbour all tossed with foam and whitecaps, and the container ships in the rain, and the ferries crossing the water. In the late afternoon the water took on a silvery sheen and the air just above it was a haggard yellow. The cold light on the water only made it seem cosier inside. People rushed in, folding their umbrellas and shaking off the water. Inside, in the crush and heat and chatter, there were tables loaded with books for sale, long queues for tickets and coffee, people fi ling into sessions or gathering for signings. I walked in and stood for a moment, feeling myself gently bumped and buffeted by the crowd. There was a smell of wet wool. I was nervous about my forthcoming session; this gave me a feeling of inertia, of uneasy, drowsy luxury. I could have sneaked off to one of the rooms upstairs and lain across the bed drinking, sprawled and stalled, while time went on somewhere else without me . . .
I stood still, calming myself. I looked across the crowd. I saw a man standing against the high windows, the grey sea behind him. I wasn’t sure until he moved and looked towards me. He was older and heavier, slightly stooped, but it was him. After all these years. The memory came rushing back. I remembered a scene long ago: a hotel room, the opened minibar, myself much younger — a beautiful, blonde younger self. The yellow light on the walls. The expensive linen. The rain drifting past the windows and outside the canyon made of city walls, the browns, the tans, the desolate spaces. Shirred water on a roof far below. No sound, the concrete silence. The bed where he lay, where he lounged and smiled. I saw him. And I saw him. Long ago, in the room of my nerves. And here, between the hotel pillars! And there, appearing again, and walking up the stairs now, a programme in his hand. Walking up the stairs to where a crowd was gathering: for An Hour With Celia Myers. The woman he . . . The woman whose marriage . . . Long ago, in the room where he lay, where he grinned and smoked and made a joke, I’d looked out at the darkening city and thought of my husband Joe, at home, not knowing. At home with our daughters.
I followed him up the stairs. I looked at his back, his shoulders. Let’s call him Martin. Long ago I fell in love with him, and went to bed with him, and Joe found out and left me. And then Martin told me: ‘I don’t love you. I love someone else. I love another woman.’
Joe and I got back together after a while, but things were never the same. And now he’s dead I look back and think about what our life would have been like. I know it would have been better if I’d never met Martin.
He had joined the queue. He was going to my Hour With. It was impossible. I couldn’t allow it. I would yank him out of the line. ‘I’m not having you sitting there ruining my hour. Smirking. Making your smartarse jokes.’ I moved towards him. I used to yearn to hurt him. I had such violent dreams. But I only did it on paper in the end. On paper, and in my head.
‘Celia! Celia!’ Now here came Sarah, weaving through the crowd. ‘Celia, I’ve been looking all over for you. Come this way. What can I get you? Water? Coffee?’
She hustled me to the Green Room. I let her push me gently into a chair. I stared at the coffee she put in front of me. I thought about the affair, how it had felt back then. I had been happily married with two children. I met Martin at a party. He made me laugh. He sent me witty notes. Some of the things he wrote were quite beautiful. We started meeting secretly. I remembered the hotel room. My nerves. The rain drifting past the window, the yellow light inside. The joy and the fear. I was right up at the sharpest, sweetest peak of feeling. I’d been married for so long, a hard-working mother for so long, and then, suddenly, I was back in the time when feelings overwhelmed me, when everything was vivid.
He felt none of those things — I know that now. He’d never been married. He didn’t have the sense of ‘coming alive again’. He was just doing the same jaded thing he’d always done: having a fling. After a while he told me he loved someone else. Just like that. He didn’t mince words. I fled back to Joe. But Joe found out and he left me. I was distraught. I got Joe back, but the hurt didn’t go away. There was a new distance between us.
I researched Martin afterwards. He went for women who weren’t available. A classic type. I raged at him. I had dreams in which I punched him until I was exhausted. In my dreams I scorned and sneered and jeered. I tied him up and tortured him. He hadn’t loved me. He had hurt me and my family. He needed punishing for that.
I wrote a story about him. I invited him to a café and made him read it. A contemptible tear slid down his cheek. ‘Look at you, playing at feeling,’ I said. ‘You crocodile. Go away and learn to be a human being.’
The story was about a loveless playboy, a dishonourable man, good for nothing except suicide. I described his faithless ways, his self-pity. At the end I had him lying on a couch dying of booze, of lousiness . . .
‘Celia?’ Sarah was leaning over me. ‘Are you ready?’
I never asked Joe what he thought of the story. If Martin had asked me to, would I have left Joe? If Joe had been a writer, what sort of story would he have written about me?
Sarah was hovering. ‘Celia. Can I get you . . . ?’
‘I’m just a bit faint.’ I wiped my face. I was crying.
‘There’s a huge crowd out there. They’re even standing at the back.’
I got up and gathered my notes. The chairperson was waiting at the door. She was flushed and nervous. She whispered a lot of instructions about the microphone. I nodded and smoothed my shirt. We went out onto the stage.
Beyond the bright lights there was a collective rustle and sigh. I smiled into the hot dazzle. I could see rows and rows of heads. Impossible to see who any of them were. The chair was already up at the podium, introducing me. I sat down and set my expression: modest, polite.
I couldn’t keep my mind on the notes I’d prepared. Why had he come? Did he have some kind of feeling for me back then? Was he sorry?
The introduction was winding down. I wanted to be in a room upstairs, lying across the bed, the mini-bar open, looking out at the drifting rain, crying for myself, for my poor lost Joe. One thing about Martin, standing in the queue: he was alone. Always alone.
‘Introducing Celia Myers!’ Polite applause. And then the questions. Do you see yourself as. Are your stories a form of. Women see you as a.
Some guardian angel took over. I felt as though I were listening to someone else. I answered all the questions. In front of me were hundreds of nodding heads.
The chair announced that I would read. I rose and opened a book of short stories. I read a short funny one, then a more serious one. (More scattered clapping.) Then, my hands trembling, I opened an old collection. I read the story I’d written about Martin long ago. He was out there somewhere in the black spaces beyond the lights. Did he know I’d seen him outside? He would know now. He would guess. I was reading the story to him, no one else. It was a hate letter, a message of hate, directed only at him. I read in a clear, strong voice. I finished. I listened to the clapping. I thought, there is a circle, and love and hate are on it. At some point they are very close. And neither will change the immutable, the thing you send them towards.
I felt rather light and dizzy. I didn’t know whether I had been a disaster or a success. But afterwards they told me that, of all the events, my session had been the ‘most consistent’. Whatever that means.
I signed books in the foyer. There was a long line. (There were other authors there too.) I kept looking along it, but there was no Martin. It took more than an hour to get through the queue, and then Sarah and others took me for a drink at the bar. I looked around at the crowd. I signed some more books. I talked to a radio journalist who poked a big microphone at me. He asked me about new work. ‘I’m writing a collection of stories,’ I told him. ‘One that contains all of my crimes.’
I felt bad suddenly. I made an excuse and went outside. The rain was still pouring down. The sea was churned up, full of choppy waves. I looked along the wharf. And then I saw him, walking away. He was carrying an umbrella. There was a woman beside him, keeping step. He was holding the umbrella over her. I stood watching them until they went around the corner. I looked up into the white sky and let the rain fall on my face. I went back inside. In the toilets I faced the mirror. I pulled out some paper towels and wiped my eyes.
I drove home. Ron Cassidy was under his veranda, taking a piece of engine apart. Blake squatted nearby, smoking and watching. A broken pipe spouted water into the grass behind them. They looked like creatures in a lush green habitat at the zoo. I thought of my idea: Ron teetering, falling, the spray of iron and pipe and nails. The thud as he hit the concrete. His body lying inert in the yard. The woman standing at the gate, then driving slowly away.
I didn’t finish the story about Ron falling off the roof. I might go back to the idea one day. I might use it. I did write the story about Martin, though, and I did read it to him, only him, at the festival, while hundreds of people looked on. But I wrote it a long time ago, when I was young and raw. I wrote it before I lost my sense of who was good and who was bad, before I started feeling sorry for everyone, and living my life and recording it — and everyone else’s — as truly as I can.
‘Stories’ © Charlotte Grimshaw, first published in the prize-winning collection of stories Opportunity, 2007.
Charlotte’s latest novel is Mazarine, April 2018.
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