Hazel woke to the sound of the van idling in the driveway next door. The throb of the engine vibrated the meat of her insides. She waited for the hard slide and crash of the vehicle’s doors. Once, twice. Then again. Why three times? Then the deeper slam of the front door of the house. Her neighbour had gone back inside yet the van’s engine idled on. A clean hit of rage jolted Hazel fully awake. She called a quick meeting with the fury. I’ll kill him, she proposed, I’ll actually kill him.
On the other side of the bed, critical sleep lifted off Lorrie and burned away. Hazel heaved herself up and into her slippers. She filled a tall glass with water and portioned out the first plastic compartment of capsules and tablets. She returned to Lorrie’s side of the bed, handed over the medication, and announced a plan to pay a visit to old fuck-knuckle himself. No more Mrs Nice Guy with the nice notes, she said, I’ll tell him to his face. It’s five o’bloody clock in the bloody morning. Outside, the engine rumbled on.
Hazel Ferguson was not an over-thinker. She went next door that very evening, the fake brass knocker light and hollow in her hand. Through the glass pane by the door, she saw Don Wright suck in his stomach and check his reflection as he walked down the hall. He let his gut out again when he saw her square middle-aged shape on the step.
No worries mate, he said, interrupting Hazel as she asked him to please only start the engine when it was time to drive away. You know, rather than twenty minutes before you leave, she said with a pressed together smile.Yep, will see what I can do, mate. Got a lot on, big job in Morrinsville, early starts, he said with a grin and shrug.
Here’s the thing, Hazel said. I’m not your mate. I’m your neighbour. Who has a sick wife. She really needs the sleep. Please. Please don’t start the van till you’re ready to leave.
The grin fell off Don’s face and he twisted a socked foot into the doormat. My neighbour who has a sick what, he said, but it wasn’t a question.
The two women had met at school camp. Hazel was a last minute stand-in for her disorganised brother, and Lorrie was one of those parents who had the days pencilled in since the start of the year. They were assigned first night dinner prep together.
The caterer was a little rooster in a green bandanna and a clean apron. He stood in the doorless frame between kitchen and dining hall. He put out a hand and announced, Rick, you are? The hand he thrust forward was a challenge. It had no fingers at all, just a melted thumb fused to a quilted mass of skin grafts. Shake that, ya bitch, the mangled stump seemed to say. Anyone who saw it couldn’t help but imagine a glinting cleaver and a dripping crimson chopping board, or a powerful sausage grinder snagging a sleeve and then mincing out of control.
Hazel had been unstacking chairs, preparing for the rush of hungry and excited kids. She paused with a chair in mid-air to watch the exchange. Lorrie Hood was short with a plain scrubbed face and a thick brown ponytail. She was wearing a blue flowered dress so well-worn it had bleached white under the armpits. Hazel had her pegged as timid. But Lorrie reached out and clamped that hand-stump in a firm shake. Jerked it up and down. Poor old Rick must have felt it right back in the shoulder socket. She looked straight at him and said, Lorraine. Lillian’s mum. Burgers tonight, isn’t it Rick? The rooster shook out his squeezed stump with a tight smile. He looked down at Lorrie’s jandals and said, No shoes, no entry, love. Again Lorrie returned serve. Good thing I’m still in the dining hall then isn’t it, she said, and retracted her toes an inch over the technical threshold.
At the back of the hall, Hazel had laughed in delight. She followed Rick’s slit-eyed gaze. Lorrie had lifted the hem of her dress to emphasise her point, revealing a set of strong beautiful calves and tapered ankles. This was a full year before anything happened between them but even then Hazel had thought, oh shit, I’m in trouble here.
That evening they’d stood in the serving window together, feet laced inside running shoes, using twin metal tongs to pinch stiff meat patties onto buns. They discovered that the fresh sweat of each was clean and pleasant to the other. There was a list tacked above the serving window. Lorrie kept glancing at it, checking and double-checking as the kids queued up, her own daughter highlighted in fatal bold.
Grace Gordon-Wiles – Gluten Free (celiac)
Emma Kaderi – no pork
Travis Hutchby Way – allergic to eggs
Lilly Hood – Life threatening allergies to sesame, dairy, nuts, banana
Arran Snyders – dairy free and gluten free
Luke Hotere – allergic to fish
It’s just the hand we’ve been dealt, Lorrie shrugged, when Hazel made sympathetic enquiries about Lilly’s complicated condition. She didn’t mention that she also used this fatalist approach to cover up her poor choice of husband, as if she had somehow not been involved in the poor choosing herself.
It took the women three years to come to their private realisation, make a decision, and then for Lorrie to confront and dismantle her marriage. But then they were out the other side of all that pain and damage and gossip and into a satisfying new life together.
Those were the years when they still felt so relieved and rewarded by the small daily habits of the other. Lorrie noticed the folded laundry, the wiped benchtops, the mowed lawns, and the relaxed unhurried manner with which these tasks were completed. Hazel, previously living alone and reliant on a stack of takeout menus, was astonished at the effort Lorrie put into meals, often actually growing the meals. She tended a small but bursting garden, constantly covered in bites and rashes, and spent hours peeling and chopping and freezing. She made Hazel try small whole beets that she packed in a vinegar made from apples. Hazel wasn’t a huge fan of the dark earthy flavour but she liked how Lorrie prepared jars and jars of them anyway, suiting her own tastes, not adjusting all her preferences to someone new. A whole shelf in the pantry was lined with the glowing ruby jars. On another were bottles of tiny onions that she had peeled while wearing a plastic scuba diving mask and then fermented to a delicate sourness in nothing but salt.
They fought about the extremes of these tendencies. Lorrie could be too inflexible and stuck in her ways, forgetting to include Hazel in decisions that she had become used to making alone over the long years of a drifting marriage. Hazel irritated Lorrie in turn by being too easy-going, letting financial things slide, not caring if the electricity company charged them a late fee.
Still, there was a fundamental shift in both of them, a knowledge that this was far better, less guarded, than anything they’d had before. The core of what they had together was robust and exciting. By the time they moved into full middle-age and out to the tightly packed and low-maintenance suburb, they’d had 11 solid and rewarding years together. The extended families called them Auntie and Aunta. They became joint godmothers to various newborn babies. The teenaged Lilly proved herself to be diligent and careful with her allergies and the women were equally proud and tearful on the day she moved into her own flat with two vegetarians named Sage and Munter. By that stage in their life together, both women thought the difficult part was over.
But the same week that Don Wright and his red work van moved in next door, Lorrie learned that the lumpy bite lingering in her armpit was a lymphoma of the worst non-Hodgkins kind. In their shock and distress, they forgot to find time to walk up the shared driveway with a welcoming jar of cucumber pickle.
Wouldn’t have made a jot, said Hazel, when Don revved the van engine hard at 4.45am the very morning after her doorstep plea for consideration. I’m going back over there tonight, she said, the fury rising hot and quick.
A cat came winding through Don’s legs as Hazel stood shivering on the doorstep and repeated her request. It gave out a self-serving mew. Don bent down to pat it even as Hazel was forcing herself to say the words Stage Four Terminal. He spoke to the animal in a special and revolting accent. But ze puzz-puzz likes to warm up on ze lovely warm seat don’t you my puzz-puzz, he said, isn’t that right my prinzezz.
Hazel heard the van door slams again in her mind and suddenly understood. The long idle, the multiple door slams, it was all in service of a warm spot for Princess. The cat was now in his arms, white and sleek. Don smoothed her once, twice, like a movie villain. The conversation was over.
Hazel couldn’t bring herself to type How Do You Kill A Cat So It Looks Accidental into the computer. She pictured a cop from the same movie hovering with mirrored sunglasses and a vicious institutional bias. Instead she took guilty inspiration from Lilly’s condition. What Things Could My Cat Be Fatally Allergic To? she typed and squeezed a fist when marijuana appeared on the list. She had a feeling the medical type would be just the ticket.
Don and his crew held a funeral for the cat. They’d finished up the Morrinsville job and the end-of-project party was diverted for a short time into something serious and ceremonial. The men were still in their red work shirts. They stood around the back garden wearing sunglasses against the weak light and drinking dark liquid from short glasses. Someone got out their phone and read an authorless poem off the internet.
Princess had been run over. A quiet silver Tesla had zipped over the top of her. She was converted in an instant to red and white gore. Hazel suspected that the cat’s faculties and reaction times may have been impeded by the nuggets of kidney she’d hidden in the shared driveway. Each pink lump concealed a minuscule pinch of Lorrie’s medical-grade dope and a granule of Tramadol.
At first, when Hazel heard Don shouting in pain like a barking seal out in the street, she had felt a cruel and violent satisfaction. But the ensuing impromptu funeral, visible over the back fence next door, chilled her to the bone. One of the young lads, still in high-vis and yellow work boots, was patting Don’s back, offering him water. Hazel kept her head down, pulling washing down fast off the line, crumpling it into the basket, pegs pinging to the grass. Any excuse to sink more booze, she scoffed to herself, but the red work shirts clustered around the small black hole reminded her of the bunches of red berries now showing on the karamū bush: a herald of cold and dark times to come. Hazel couldn’t shake a sense that the death rites were a tiny, hideous prequel.
She settled the laundry basket on one hip and was trying to scuttle inside when Don raised a glass in her direction. He called out something. Hazel had no option but to go to the fenceline, make polite enquiries, offer condolences.
Just one of those things, Don said, pushing up his sunglasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. His eye skins were thick and pink, the nose tip raw and abraded. To Hazel’s horror he flung an arm over the fence and grabbed her shoulder in an awkward sideways hug. He was drunk. Might a been just a cat but jeez she was something else, he croaked. Should a seen her when I get home at night. Just pure happy. Never had anything like that in me life. He dropped the arm back over his side of the fence, took a slug from his glass.
Mate, he said. His voice was thick and blurred. Wanted to say. Sorry bout your lady friend. Hope she pulls through.
Hazel carried the laundry back inside to discover Lorrie hiding in the pantry, twisting and bunching a corner of her apron, tears spilling and dripping even though she was staring straight ahead without blinking.
Oh hon, oh no, I’m so sorry. It really was an accident. I just thought the stupid thing would get a tiny bit dozy, stay inside, not go and get itself squashed. I feel awful, I really do, Don’s in bits over there.
Oh, it’s not just that, Lorrie laughed, her voice flat and bitter in the small dark space. A cat, whoopdy shit.
She cried hard now, with big shuddering in-breaths, pushing the tears back up with the heel of one hand. She looked up at the rows of jars. There’s enough bloody beetroot here for six years, not six months, and you don’t even like the stuff.
So that was how Hazel found out that Lorrie had been to the specialist, alone, and pinned that evasive prick to a time frame.
Later, when Lorrie’s whole skin was shiny and full of fluid, when her face was a smooth pale moon and her lovely ankles had been lost to the bloating, the sight of all those jars nauseated her. By then, no matter what she tried to eat, all she could taste were wire fences, dirty metal spades, cold rusted steel. One afternoon, Hazel came home to find Lorrie out of bed, sweating and shaking with the effort of wrenching sealed lids off jars. She had the wastemaster running and a great bloody river foamed in the sink.
By that stage, Hazel was often awake long before dawn. Night and day were just a single grey ocean. Lorrie breathed slowly in and out and there were empty pauses between breaths where the tide caught her, pulling her out. Hazel pushed back a curtain to crack a window for the dawn air. Soon the work van rolled into view. The engine was off. The driver’s door was ajar, and Don’s red face was cranked to the rear as he guided the vehicle back. He coasted in neutral down the driveway. The segment of silence fell as a blessing on his neighbours’ house. He rolled as far as he could down the street before shutting the door, starting the engine, and rejoining the roaring, thundering world.