Jeni Curtis 2013

Our neighbour was a man called Edward Woods. His friends called him Woodie and it suited him. He was a brown sort of man. Not tall but stocky. Tanned and gnarly. He wore walk shorts and his thighs sat hairily on the car seat next to me. He asked me to call him Edward, but I called him nothing. Or Mr Woods, if necessary.

My mother said to my father that Mrs Woods was flighty. I wasn’t too sure what that meant, but knew better than to ask. I sat quietly doing my homework at the kitchen table while mum did the ironing. Flighty seemed to me a lightweight sort of word, as if she could soar out of our little neighbourhood and reach the sky. I liked the idea of being flighty. Mrs Woods liked to hang out on the deck in her brunch coat, or a bikini in summer, smoke cigarettes and read magazines. She didn’t seem to me to soar. She looked bored. “She wears too much makeup for my liking,” said dad. “And she paints her toenails.” Mum smiled as if she’d won some sort of prize.

Mrs Woods’s name was Nita. She told me to call her that one day when I was poking around amongst the things on her dressing table. Oh, I wasn’t alone. I was sort of friends with her daughter, Natalie, who was a year or two younger. Natalie was the only girl in the vicinity, and we were thrown together where we might not have been friends in another time and place. Natalie was putting on her mother’s lipstick, Max Factor, Hawaiian Coral. There was matching polish and I dabbed it on my toenails, tentatively. I knew I was condemning myself to wearing socks till it wore off. “Call me Nita,” she said, as she lit another cigarette and let the smoke curl out her nostrils. “Nita by name and Nita by nature.” I knew she was making a joke because her room was cluttered with clothes. But, of course, I couldn’t call her that either. It’d be like calling my aunts or uncles by their first name. It just wasn’t done.

Natalie came to my house too. “A nice little girl,” mum said. “She won’t lead you astray.” Since we weren’t allowed to go anywhere else, I couldn’t see how this would happen anyway. We weren’t allowed anywhere near my parents’ bedroom. We could play in my room or the porch. I was getting too old for dolls and things and preferred to be by myself and read, but mum encouraged the friendship. “You must make an effort,” she’d say. “Poor child.” I was not meant to hear that as she muttered it under her breath. But I did. Anyhow, Natalie thought my parents were strange. Once I took her to see their bedroom when they were out in the garden and there was no risk of being caught. “You mean, they sleep in the same room, in the same bed?” said Natalie. “Together?”

I didn’t go to the same school as Natalie. She went to the convent where the nuns taught. I went to the local school which was in the opposite direction. I walked to school, cradling my bag on my hip like a toddler. Most kids biked with their bag on the carrier. But I liked to walk. It gave me time to think. But some mornings, Mr Woods passed by in his car. He’d stop and wind down the window and ask if I wanted a lift. At first I said no, but I asked mum and she didn’t see anything wrong with it. He was our neighbor and it was very kind of him, she explained.

So next time, I got into his car. I slid tentatively onto the brown vinyl seat, hugged my schoolbag to me, and said thank you.

We never talked much. I wasn’t a talker and, anyway, he was an adult. Sometimes he’d ask me about my schoolwork and I’d answer briefly and politely. It wasn’t as if the journey was long enough to strike up a conversation. He rested his hand on the gear lever as he drove and I studied the way the hairs ran down his fingers and brown spots freckled his skin. Occasionally while changing gears, his hand would knock against my knee. When I got out of the car, my eyes would meet his and he’d nod, as if something was understood. All day at school, the trace of his knuckles would burn like a scar underneath my gymfrock.

One day a fisherman found Nita floating near the rocks in the harbour. Natalie was sent to live with her grandparents and Mr Woods moved away. Once when I was in Wellington I thought I saw Natalie working in a shoe shop on Lambton Quay. Our eyes flickered past each others’ and we said nothing.

The summer Natalie left I took to wandering the hills behind my house. A windbreak of radiata pines marched down the hillside. I’d sit in the sun, and stare out to the sea, far in the distance, my back pressed against the rough gnarled bark. The tang of pine lay heavy in the air. I felt the warm brown pine needles prickle like hairs along the backs of my legs. My toenails shone like coral.