Spring 2017

2018

2017

‘Inside the Walls’

By Alice Karetai

Alice Karetai
© Alice Karetai

Trev’s sneakers beat the black road. At the corner, a large flame tree brandished torch-like blooms, signaling the beginning of the final climb. His wrist showed 8:29am. To the left, the dark green kanuka of the reserve spread down the bowl of the valley. Houses lined the road in neat, rectangular sections that sloped down to the bush below. With no footpath the neighbourhood display of red/blue-lidded rubbish bins was less a grid than an obstacle course. Trev’s lungs gasped at the frigid air as he reached his house.

They’d got it for under 800 grand nine years before – a steal at the time. The place was private, close to the ferry and sheltered from the southerlies. Its wide street frontage was impressive, if misleading. Here the road changed its mind and bent a tight turn around two wedge-shaped sections, his place and Jayme’s next door, compressing them into one other at the fold of the hill. Trev jogged a little further up the road to admire the new paint job on his walls.

The colour was a smooth, smoky shade of blue. The walls stretched tall and sexy as sheer stockings. Next door, Jayme’s bungalow wore a pockmarked skin of beige panels. Mismatched aluminium joinery peered from beneath a tatty shade sail that flapped when the wind blew. An ancient, squat deck hugged the hill, the whole image as repugnant as hairy legs and bush at the beach. The two houses looked like strangers sharing a public bench. Trev turned his shoulder and headed for home.

His driveway welcomed him like a song. Here, like just about everywhere on his property, the neighbour’s place disappeared from sight and mind. The only window facing south was the wide pillar of clouded-glass cubes in the ensuite. Even from the back deck that lifted its nose over the reserve, the majestic head of a phoenix palm hid the neighbouring house from view. Trev pictured himself there in a few minutes time, towel-clad, king of the valley, whistling into the steam of his morning coffee, admiring the pink-tipped sky and listening to the tui call that echoed up to join the laughing chitter of smaller birds.

Trev grabbed his recycling bin and rumbled it up towards the road, gloating that his neighbour’s bins were nowhere to be seen. Car doors slammed and Jayme’s car backed out of the driveway next door. Had she seen him up on her driveway just now? Her eyes were turned away from him, out the rear window. Her neck curved like a branch. In the back seat, three school polar fleeces merged Jayme’s kids into a three-headed red beast who would be late for school as usual. Trev’s son, Leo, had caught the bus at 7:54am, giving Trev time for 5000 steps before work. Trev gave Jayme a wave and a nod and turned to haul the other bin up the drive.

He jogged inside and headed for the bathroom, where he peeled off his layers of charcoal performance-lycra and slid into a one-minute shower. He grabbed the towel from its hook by the window and wrapped it around his waist, bathing in the milky light as he wiped his feet dry on the mat. He had that couple viewing the Johnson’s place again this morning. ‘Location And Potential’ had been ten months on the market already and Trev had his sights on that commission.

The soles of his feet savoured the change from cold tiles to carpet to smooth hardwood floor as he made his way to the kitchen. The new cabinets gleamed white and silver. The green apples lined up on the glossy counter were reflected in its mirrored polish. Clarissa, of course, had chosen the most expensive benchtop. The kitchen still smelled plastic-wrapped. Trev reached for the coffee-tin and some water dripped from his hair. The little puddles on the stovetop’s pure, glistening blackness looked like the eyes of some dark, sleek animal. Trev buffed the water away, and felt a soft weight tap him on the back of the neck.

He nearly dropped his towel. A maggot wriggled on the glass surface. Its little pink head seemed to be seeking something. A home, a solace, a mate to have maggot sex with.

Trev didn’t panic. He shrouded the maggot in a tissue. His lip curled. The tender package seemed to move in his hand as he carried it to the toilet to flush it away. He clutched his towel as he climbed up on a chair to scan the tops of the kitchen cabinets, but they were pristine and dustless and maggot-free.

His coffee left him with an acrid taste in his mouth, haunted by the thing in the toilet.

*

When Trev brought Leo home from Kelly Club late that afternoon there were eight blind, squirming maggots scattered across the kitchen floor. One struggled fatly out of the grating of the rangehood, solving the mystery of where the dead thing was. Another just missed being flattened by Leo’s discarded schoolbag. There had to be a rat or something dead in the vent. Trev swept the maggots into the little green dustpan and carried them outside.

A narrow ditch traced a line between his section and Jayme’s. It sloped a symbolic division all the way down to the reserve. The garden next door was an eyesore. An assortment of monstrosities squabbled over the space. A concrete-encrusted wheelbarrow lay upended, intimidated by several rolls of chicken wire. Weeds attempted to engulf an inexplicable stainless steel shower tray. A dismantled gazebo, its rusty legs plucked off like some tortured insect, sprawled behind the phoenix palm, whose swaying leaves denounced the pandemonium below. Jayme didn’t have a man around to keep the place up to par, but still. She spent enough time in her garden in her little cut-off shorts. A fence. A fence would be good. And buggered if he’d let her get away with not paying for her half. Trev dumped the maggots into the ditch.

His cellphone rang. It was the electrician.

‘Listen, Trev. I’m just wondering when you’re gonna pay me, mate.’

‘Well, mate, I sent you an email already. Your work’s really untidy. You’ve broken stuff. I’ve had to finish the job off myself, so, I’m not paying you.’

‘You’re joking! The job was basically done when you sent me home. All that was left was the tidying up, mate. And I’m sorry about that fruit bowl. I’ve sent you a new invoice. I’ve only charged you for two thirds of the stuff I’ve done – I took out some of the extra time I put in trying to finish everything to your schedule, I haven’t charged you for the time we spent going over the design. You can’t not pay me, I’ve done a lot of work for you. I had to turn down other work to do your place. And there’s hundreds of dollars worth of hardware that I’ve left in your walls. Some of your wiring was really rat-chewed and that stuff doesn’t come cheap.’

‘Like I said, your work’s untidy. I’m not happy. I’m not paying you.’

‘Can I come around and have a look with you? You show me where the untidy bits are.’

‘Look, I don’t want you back here. That’s just a waste of time. I’m a busy man and time is money. You need to move on, mate, you really do. Goodbye.’

‘Daaaad!’ Leo was yelling to him off the deck.

‘For Christ’s sakes, Leo! What are you yelling for?!’ Trev yelled back, lurching down the path to where he could see his son.

‘Dad, I’m hungry.’

‘Get in the car. We’ll grab a pizza for dinner.’

*

It was 9:03pm, a time when well-brought-up kids were asleep in bed and their parents were getting ready to fuck like pigs. With a bit of luck. After all, Clarissa usually let him touch her on a Friday night. Trev brushed his teeth, confident. The clouded glass beside him absorbed the glow of the room, revealing nothing of the night outside. He wondered how much of his naked body would be visible if his neighbour happened to look out over her atrocious garden.

‘Trevor?’ Clarissa called from the lounge. ‘The electrician’s sent us another invoice.’

Trev swaggered out.

‘We’re not paying that, honey. His fees are exorbitant. He didn’t even finish the job. I’ve sorted him out.’

His wife sat facing the computer, work clothes still on but shoes discarded. Her stockinged leg coiled around the steel shaft of the sheepskin-covered barstool. Trev wrapped his arms around her and kissed the back of her head. She smelled of honey and air, of city lights. Her fingertip nudged the little wheel to scroll down.

‘How was the ferry tonight?’ Trev asked as he stroked her arm.

‘Oh, you know. Full.’

Trev stretched his hand down to her knee and fingered the smooth hem of her skirt.

‘We’ve got maggots in the vent.’

‘Well that’s gross. Trevor…’

She meant stop, so he took his hand away. It hung limp at his side.

‘Leo and me had to have pizza tonight.’ Trev kept it casual.

‘Poor kid,’ she said.

Her finger clicked the mouse. The sheepskin tickled his balls.

‘I think I’ll light a fire,’ Trev said, striding across the room.

‘Really? It’s not that cold is it?’

‘Gotta get our money’s worth outta the fireplace right? It cost us eight K.’

‘I’m going to have a shower.’

‘I’ll join you.’

‘Please don’t. I just want to get clean and sleep. This week’s been exhausting.’

Trev turned to the wood basket and snapped a piece of kindling in half. Clarissa had already left the room. Stars blinked at him through the window. He squatted, naked, like a caveman, before the fireplace in the corner of the room. Inside he stacked a pyramid with nine pages of newspaper and three layers of kindling. At least it would be ready for next time.

He heard the shower turn on. Clarissa would be soaping her body, water pouring off her chest, opening her mouth to the warm falling spray.

He abandoned the unlit fireplace and went to grab his dressing gown from the bedroom. The sheepskin on the computer stool was too tickly to sit on naked.

*

The next morning, Trev swept a fresh harvest of maggots from the floor. The kitchen was off limits. The apples had gone in the compost. He’d sent Leo and Clarissa out for breakfast. Trev did not feel like eating after finding a cluster of maggots concealed beneath the cool dampness of the bathroom mat after his shower that morning. A couple of them had been squelched into the tight fibres of the bedroom carpet.

They’re clean, he thought. Maggots are clean. If you’re lost in the wilderness and you find a rotting carcass, the maggots are fresh and good to eat. Good protein. Keep you alive. The plump little things wriggled on the green dustpan. The birds would have a feast. He couldn't help wondering what they tasted like, and had to repress a revolting desire to pop one in his mouth.

Jayme was in her garden carrying the rusty gazebo up the hill.

‘Hiya Trev. Nice day?’ She plunked the gazebo down and wiped her hands on her jeans, which were shredded and showed peeks of her underwear.

‘Yeah, good,’ said Trev. ‘Have a look at what came out of my ceiling.’

He extended the dustpan.

‘What’s that?’ she asked, stepping around the shower tray and over to the ditch for a closer look.

‘Maggots. Something’s got into the extraction vent in the kitchen.’

‘Urrgh!’ She made a cheerfully disgusted face. She smelled like popcorn and onions. Trev dumped the maggots in the ditch between them.

A white van pulled into Jayme’s driveway. Jayme’s three terrors ran out, shrieking like maniacs. It was the grandad. Mike. He carried a chainsaw in an orange and black plastic cover. Trev waved his little green dustpan.

‘Morning, Mike’ he said.

‘Morning, Trev. Your new paint looks good.’ The kids thundered along the deck back into the house.

‘Thanks. It’s pretty nice, eh?’ Trev stretched his arms back and surveyed his blue walls. ‘I see you’ve got the chainsaw out.’

‘Yeah, we’re gonna attack that horrible phoenix palm this morning.’

Trev turned to the tree. Little orange berries clustered beneath the thick mane of fronds. A flock of sparrows blended in to the sandy brown of its furrowed trunk.

‘That beautiful tree? Why? What’s wrong with it?’

‘Horrible spikey things. You’re not even allowed plant them anymore they’re so bad.’ The sun winked off his bald head.

‘They’re a noxious weed,’ Jayme added. ‘They’re just horrible. Invade native bush and poison the ground around them.’ She nodded towards the reserve as if that explained something.

‘You go to Pakatoa Island these days and it’s just agapanthus and phoenix palms instead of nikau and harakeke.’

The two of them were as excited as a couple of lunatics. The palm stood tall and still in the windless air. The sparrows squeaked.

‘I really wish you wouldn’t cut it down. It gives us a lot of privacy. I’ve always thought of it as a shared tree, right between our sections.’

Jayme looked at him.

‘It’s on our side of the ditch, Trev,’ she said quietly, ‘and I’m not gonna spy on you.’

‘And if it gets much taller it’ll block the light going into the bedroom over winter,’ Mike added, placing the chainsaw on the deck. ‘It has to go.’

Trev looked at his dustpan. One maggot had been crushed underneath it and was stuck to the plastic with its own juices. He flicked it off with the brush, then tossed both brush and pan down on the grass and crunched his way down the gravel path to the tool shed. He found the drill and a bucket and shuffled back inside to his maggots, avoiding eye-contact with the neighbours.

Inside, he unlatched the grating of the extractor fan. A small pile of writhing larvae dropped into the bucket. He set a chair beside the stove and clambered on. Outside, the chainsaw bubbled to life. Trev’s electric drill rang out as he unscrewed the hood from the wall. It almost drowned out the noise from next door.

Clarissa and Leo walked in and Leo ran over to watch him.

‘Can I help, Dad?’

‘Trevor, don’t scratch the cabinets.’

‘Nah, it’s fine. Watch out Leo.’

Trev placed the large rectangles of stainless steel on the floor. And lifted a chair over to climb on. The thick whine of the chainsaw chewed through the air. Trev stepped onto the shining black stovetop, knocking his chair over in the process.

‘Trevor!’

‘Just let me do this, Clarissa!’

She took Leo away. Trev looked into the hole and saw nothing. He reached his hand in for a feel. He clasped the cabinet to his chest and stretched his other arm deep into the void, floundering it around inside the wall as far as he could reach. Plaster dust fell on the black glass under his feet. His fingers slid unsuccessfully over the satin curves of the dark channel. The dead thing had to be further out, somewhere near the outside wall.

Clarissa came back in.

‘Trevor, I don’t appreciate…’

‘Sorry, honey. I’m just pissed off about the neighbours cutting down that tree.’

‘What tree?’

‘The phoenix palm. Kicking us in the nuts, hon. All our privacy gone.’ Trev lumbered back onto the floor and went over to the corner by the fireplace. ‘Look, they’re cutting the whole thing down.’

She came over and craned her neck over his shoulder.

‘Where? I can’t see it from here.’ She glided outside onto the deck and Trev followed.

Mike had notched a scarf out of the trunk and was now slipping the tongue of the chainsaw through the back of the palm in a symphonic crescendo. The tree toppled slowly with a great swooshing, crashing noise. The chainsaw idled and the shrieks of escaping birds resonated in an infuriated descant. The fallen crest of fronds looked enormous on the ground. Above the victim and its bald, chainsaw-wielding destroyer, a large rectangular window peeped through aluminium eyelids at Trev. It glinted in the sun from amid the sick-coloured wall.

Trev trudged back inside and stepped over the legs of the fallen chair to grab his drill from the white-dusted stovetop. He walked straight out the front door and grabbed the ladder, wielding it like a shield in his left hand, the drill like a weapon in his right.

Next door, the battle was already lost. Mike had his back turned and was shearing the mane off the fallen palm. A bald man shaving a tree. Trev turned away from the carnage and leaned his ladder up against his wall. The grille of the vent glowed like a flag above it. The weight of the drill in his hand reassured him as he climbed. He unscrewed the four screws at the corners of the grille and slid them one by one into his pocket. Then he dropped the ridged plastic onto the bushes below. Its white rectangle flashed on the khaki-coloured grass.

Shifting the drill to his left hand, Trev reached into the opening in the wall. The inner surface of the silver conduit was dry and cool. Papery. Foil-smooth. Then his fingers brushed something leathery and moist and he recoiled. The ladder crunched on the gravel and gouged a chip out of the new paint. Trev clutched the hole in the wall. The drill slipped from his fingers and dropped to the ground. He swore. Behind him the chainsaw keened. Trev steadied the ladder and gripped the wall to reach in again.

He stretched out his hand slowly until his fingertips brushed the leathery

thing. He grasped the edge of it with his fingernails and tugged it towards him. It was not, at first, obvious what it was. But as it slid closer, its shape became recognisable. It was, or had once been, a pie, half eaten, the arc of its crust dried out but still intact, some weeks old. Its filling gave off a putrid smell. It was crawling with maggots.

The electrician.

Trev pinched the crust of the maggot pie and threw it out towards the neighbours’ place. It fell softly apart as it flew, raining maggots in thick white drops. It came to rest on a patch of parsley a little short of the ditch.

*

The lounge was dark apart from a soft glow emanating from the bedroom where Clarissa lay reading. Trev stood next to the cold fireplace, staring out of the window, arms crossed. The silhouette of Jayme’s house cut the night in sections. Its paintwork was shoddy even in moonlight. The stump of the phoenix palm was a black splodge, adding to the collection of feature eyesores in Jayme’s garden.

‘It’s bad neighbour behaviour.’

‘Trevor, come to bed!’

‘I can see their whole house from here, honey.’

‘So? What do we care if they see us stoking the fire?’

‘I can see right into her bedroom!’

The light was on and washing lay heaped the bed. Jayme entered and began to fold it. She had on a long t-shirt that got very short when she leaned over.

‘Like we ever stand squashed up against the wall staring around the corner at her place!’ Clarissa muttered from the next room.

A tall shadow crept across Jayme’s deck. An intruder? The intruder tapped on the bedroom window. Jayme scooted around the bed to slide it open, a wide smile on her face. She leaned right through the aperture and kissed the shadow, who started taking off his boots. As he climbed inside his face caught the light.

The electrician. That pie-eating bastard. Jayme climbed on the bed and pushed the mound of washing off onto the floor.

Trev tiptoed across the room. Clarissa was turned away, still reading. He slipped the bedroom door closed with a quiet click and lifted the computer stool over to the nook between fireplace and window. It was 9:36pm. Next door the curtains remained open.

About Alice Karetai

Ko Aoraki te mauka. Ko Waitaki te awa. Ko Kāi Tahu te iwi. Ko Ōtākou te marae.

Alice Karetai grew up on Waiheke Island, and tasted life in Bolivia, Paris and Bahrain before returning to the University of Auckland complete her BA (Hons) in English. Kaiwhatu, a mother of two, and an active member of her community, she is currently completing a Master of Indigenous Studies at the University of Auckland.