Emma Neale

Switchskin

Can you wreak the havoc right out of something? Reason I ask: Dad’s friend, Deb, has come to stay and now the house feels all shiny and shrink-wrapped, but, like, uptight. It’s been tidy now for eight entire weeks. She’s even wiped the kitchen lampshade clean of webs and of the spider who stood guard like a Beefeater whose beef was flies and fleas. My little ally. I miss that spider guy.

When I ask about Deb, the way Dad fake-reads bumf and insists she’s just a friend makes me want to grab his junk mail and rip it up, then shred a pillow or two; throw a little tanty to get some honest havoc back.

None of our other friends poke around our pantry, leave rose-scented soaps in the bathroom or glue paper silhouettes of foxes to the windows to stop the birds crashing into their own reflections. This morning, Deb’s silky robe slid undone as she stood bare-foot at our fridge. The glimpse of her petal-like skin made ice skid down the bumps of my spine. I had to look away and stare right at the kitchen light until blue blots floated across my eyes.

‘That’s just what friends do,’ Dad says. ‘They bring themselves. They fill up your life. And all the better for it. Debbie’s in a tight spot, needs a place to stay. And God knows, I could do with a bit of …’

‘Skirt? Booty?’

Dad brandishes a brochure like he’s ready to chuck it at me. ‘Watch your mouth, Cody.’

‘Why?’ I ask. ‘What’s it doing?’ I monkey-pucker at my reflection in the stainless-steel kettle.

 ‘Christ,’ Dad mutters. ‘I could do with a bit of levity round here. A bit of light.’

I biff him a box of safety matches. I lob him a can of Bufflehead Lite Lager. He fields each catch. ‘Ha-ha,’ he says, flat as tarmac. ‘Work on that stand-up act. Don’t throw in the day job. Oh wait! That’s right.’ He opens his hands like a cheesy magician: the kind who releases pigeons dunked in cornflour, so the clueless will think doves. ‘You don’t have a day job. I’ve got the day job, to keep you in meals and new jeans.’

That freakin’ hurts. Did I ask to be born? To be chef, cleaner, gardener after we lost Mum? Didn’t I paint him that chair in butternut orange, for out on the deck? Didn’t I gobsmack him, last summer, by planting flowers along the back fence? He said I had Grandad’s green thumbs and the moonflowers I chose just about did him in. To get them at their best, he has to go out at night. Their fragrance is like the ghost of Mum’s perfume: ‘Insolence’ from Guerlain.

Her insolence. I want to soak in that. Roll in it, carry its scent instead of my own musk, which, if you bottled it? Today? Would be ‘Stunned and Wronged’, or ‘Shocked and Betrayed’. Because I walk in after hockey training and see Dad has basically given Debbie free rein to—he quotes her—‘Zhoosh that tired décor.’

‘Dad! What the frick? You let Miss Sexy Friend trash my room!’

‘Language, Cody.’

‘Oh, what? Mzzz Sexy Friend?’

He makes the silence sit and wait. An eyebrow twitches like he’s trying to say we’re still two mates together. Silverback and sidekick. Father and fun. ‘That’s Doctor Sexy Friend to you.’ She lectures in flute. Groan.

He thinks she’s helping, I guess, but how can he really think her taste rates? She’s put tacky glow-in-the-dark stickers on my ceiling: stars and two massive moons. Like I’m seven? Those things are, what, astronomically correct, with lakes and craters or whatever all over them? As if I’d enjoy them gawping at me from up there, like gigantic trippy eyeballs.

Maybe they both reckon her choice is homeopathic? Yeah, right.

I just can’t believe Dad’s told her without asking me if it was okay.

Maybe he had to. Maybe she found the cat bones near the rhododendron. Or went to the compost bin and saw the monthly night pelt I grow, then shed at dawn, the wreckage like a furnado. We usually sweep up the moult for the worms. In winter, we wrap it in newspaper and burn it in the fireplace. The sparks shoot against the chimney’s carbon black, which is like an empty night sky: my favourite kind.

Dad’s so soft. He gives himself away. None of our real friends know about my situation. I might as well have walked in on him and Dr Flutey-flirt, bed-sheets puddled on the floor: Dad’s big old untanned man-butt glowing like, yeah, you guessed it.

I never used to have a thing about Our Only Natural Satellite. This whole condition developed a couple of years before Mum passed. Doctors think it’s carried by some weird insect that’s breeding more because of the heating planet. Those hives I had after our big summer lake trip? They were the start of it. Frick you, monster-fly. Frick you more, climate deniers.

Mum researched into lots of old theories and stories before she died. They said I should be fine if I don’t eat human flesh for nine years. I thought that would be a cinch, until Deb wrecked my ceiling. Her forearms make my glands zing. They gleam like chicken tenders basted in buttermilk and Cajun spice. I swear I’ve never wanted to bite anyone so hard in my life.

 

 

Photo credit: Caroline Davies





Emma Neale

Emma Neale is the author of six novels, six poetry collections and a collection of short fiction. She received the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry 2020. Her most recent novel, Billy Bird (2016) was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Her first collection of short stories, The Pink Jumpsuit (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2021), was long-listed for the Acorn Prize. She has two sons and lives in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, New Zealand, where she works as a freelance editor.