Short story: Stray, by Emma Neale

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“Never, ever do that again, next time have enough money for a taxi, or just stay at the party till dawn”: scenes from a party, by Dunedin writer Emma Neale

The first time she spoke to him was at a student party in a ramshackle Edwardian wooden villa. Initially she tried very hard not to react to or mention his necklace: a grotesque pendant made of a dead seagull and green twine. His friend, who pushed past her, carried orange-tongued lilies and a small animal skull that fitted in his hand as neatly as a peeled fruit. The proud expectancy on his friend’s face said affectation: that this was all in aid of the rippling oooh effect of theatrical entrance. Lissa thought of children’s games: bobbing for apples, costume bins and toy boxes. Yet the longer she talked to Grigor, where the heaving throng of partygoers held them both in a corner at the bottom of a threadbare, incense-smelling stairway, the more she felt the lift and fall of not understanding. Strange frights alternated with random warm bursts of affection, then patches of overcast calm.

There were things about your age cohort that you picked up, even when you’d never talked to them face to face, details ferried on rumours that carried the burnish of legend. She knew that Grigor had emigrated from Wales with his family as a teenager; had attended the “brother” school to her all-girls’ secondary; left for university in another city; was home with his folks for the summer. He’d dated another, younger girl from Lissa’s high school for a while. He was brilliant; some said a genius. He’d gone away to study archaeology. This fact must have made her think of museums, teaching maquettes, stuffed specimens, so she assumed that the seagull pendant was taxidermied. But corralled near him by another surge of new arrivals trying to move up the stairs to the small lounge on the second floor, which thudded with people dancing, Lissa caught a fishy waft of salt water. She peered at the bird more closely. Its feathers were gritty with sand. A sea louse crawled over one wing, fell to the floor and disappeared.

Until now she’d played too-cool-to-stare at Grigor himself. He wore eyeliner; his lipstick was liquorice black. Small sooty crosses were drawn on his temples and cheekbones. His pupils were enlarged, as if he was reacting to eye-drops or on speed.

Nerves made her defensively, pre-emptively talkative; she told him they had acquaintances in common, that she’d just arrived at the party from her Saturday shift waitressing, then said, “So I have to ask.”

“What?” His eyes shifted away.

She nodded at the bird. “Is this, like, the poem?”

She’d studied it at high school; remembered the English teacher trying to importune the whole class to really feel the character’s shock and pain, while the girls passed notes, picked at their fingernails, drooped with post-lunch stupor, doodled on their arms or thighs.

“What poem?”

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“‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.’’

He let his fringe fall over his eyes.

“Where the old sailor’s forced to wear an albatross around his neck. After killing it.”

Grigor seemed to be gazing at his shoes: black suede winklepickers with spiderweb-shaped buckles.

“Do you have some guilty thing you need to, like, bail people up to tell them about?”

As his eyes passed over her, she felt exposed by a floodlight. “That’s an interesting projection,” he said. “It’s a seagull, not an albatross. And I don’t know the poem.”

“‘Alone, alone, all, all alone,/Alone on a wide, wide sea./And never a saint took pity on/my soul in agony,’’’ she prompted, not believing him. “You didn’t study Coleridge at school? The Dribbling Darts of Love use it, in that song.”

He stared at her from under his long, teased fringe, which was flecked a little with gel.

A tall law student Lissa recognised from volunteer work at the student paper came pushing past, a bottle of Purple Death held high. He was local royalty. There was a lot of pressure on him to do well. His father was a senior lawyer, a Ngāti Toa Rangatira dignitary who wanted his son to be a judge one day. His mother had something to do with dentistry. He gave Lissa a disconcertingly perfect grin, and murmured to her, “Being kind to animals and strays, Liss?”

Nausea looped vines in her stomach. Until seven words ago, she’d wanted him to notice her. Had even had a wacky dream about him, a few weeks past, where she’d climbed out her window to where he’d been waiting to take her away in a truck that was like a cross between a pie cart and an ice-cream van. He’d driven her to a hilltop and served her small cold cakes of snow that tasted like marzipan — passing them to her on a copper spoon that unfurled like a butterfly proboscis. Her face flamed now at the combination of childishness and sensuality.

“You know Manawa?” asked Grigor, who was watching him duck around another corner, towards the laundry, which had a back door out onto the tiny unkempt garden.

“Not that well,” she said. Her attention was drawn by the arrival of three older men, all shaven-headed and in leather jackets. A petite woman was with them. She wore a long, blue-checked bush shirt and black tights, karate shoes, no skirt. The whites of her eyes were bloodshot. One of the men held her by the upper arm as if she had trouble walking. As they came near the stairs, Grigor pulled forward a green canvas haversack he’d had slung to the small of his back.  Like a schoolboy’s, it had graffiti in Vivid marker: the Anarchy symbol, yin and yang, some band names, the image of a safety pin dripping blood, each droplet either a rosebud or a skull.

Lissa felt suddenly anxious about his satchel catching the leather-jacketed men’s stares. Her emotions were disproportionate, scrambled, attached to the wrong thing. She felt frightened, and lost, though she walked past this villa several times a week on the way to her work at the bistro.

The older men made their way easily up the crammed stairs; the crowd melting back like margarine parted by a hot knife. Grigor bumped her elbow to get her attention. He handed her a bottle of Mateus rosé, then pulled two waxed paper cups out of his bag. He wore fingerless gloves; his fingernails were painted black, like dog’s claws. “Quaff?” he asked.

“How come you can use a word like quaff but don’t know about the Ancient Mariner?”

He shrugged. “We studied the World War One poets at high school. At least three years running. And we did Roman military campaigns and architecture in Classical Studies; no Attic vases or The Odyssey. So there you go. I come to parties to learn shit.”

She thought he meant her own education was shitty, but his huge, somehow restfully dark-flowering pupils meant she accepted a cup of the wine. It was pinkish, like blood being rinsed from cloth. She held it like a prop; had no intention of drinking it. Was trying to find the right moment to leave, though more people were shouldering into the corridor — some shouting excitedly, some looking furious, as if they’d paid entry and hadn’t expected their view to be this obscured. Lissa glimpsed a woman she disliked. Vicky. Aloof, black-haired, milky-skinned, younger than Lissa but in the same year at varsity, she had been accepted for restricted-entry courses that Lissa had missed out on. She was another person everybody talked about. Men apparently revered her: there were wild stories about her bedroom inventiveness.

Lissa had still only slept with one person. It was already thrilling, breathtaking. She hoped he didn’t talk about it — and wondered if that reserve made her vanilla, naïve, expendable? The moment she resolved not to scan the crowd for Stefan, the man she’d slept with half a dozen times, she was looking for him again. And again. As she did on campus; as she did downtown; as she did even sometimes from her window, dreaming him along her street.

She’d imagined Stefan would love her after sex. She’d imagined that, when his flatmates told him she’d called to leave a message about this party, he’d angle to get here too. She’d confessed to him, a month ago, that her mother had disappeared from the city her family had relocated to, leaving her father and brother a note, saying not to try and find her. Lissa had divined sympathy and understanding from Stefan’s posture as they sat talking on a hillock in a small, scruffy, inner-urban park, watching the moon and stars appear like chips of opal and malachite against thin op-shop velvet. The fold of his body towards hers, his quiet listening, had made Lissa feel safe and calm for the first time since her father’s crack-voiced, confused phone call to her flat.

She hadn’t understood that a person can swiftly feel sympathy, but then just as swiftly move on; that attraction can be like light passing through a prism: suddenly, exquisitely there, and then for obscure reasons just as quickly absent.

The music upstairs paused, then The Cure’s “Why Can’t I Be You” exploded from the stereo. She felt her heart loosen and drift from her surprised mouth like a perfect smoke ring, the cinnamon red of hard candy — because yes, there he was. Stefan had appeared just behind campus-celebrity Vicky. The slow surge and mill of all the bodies in the hallway held them near each other too — uncomfortably near, for strangers. She felt she was watching them from behind some transparent barrier. Time distorted. Reactions were at the wrong pace. Theirs, or hers? Vicky tilted her head back, speaking to Stefan. He smiled and brought both hands to the nape of her neck, adjusting something: the clasp of her necklace, or the tie of her sequinned halter top, which she wore under a diaphanous peach shirt. When he finished, Vicky leaned back a little, like a tango dancer trying to demonstrate a dip in a crowded bus.

Lissa felt a deep, burning flinch even before Stefan had lowered his mouth to Vicky’s. Over the crush of people, the thud of the bass coming from upstairs, the hubbub of other conversation, Lissa strained to hear what they said when they broke back up and out of the kiss, underwater swimmers thrilled at how long they’d gone anaerobic. But all her hearing managed to zone in on was a med student trying to offer a woman some kind of pill by way of apology for knocking her drink down the front of her dress.

With her throat smarting, Lissa realised she’d downed half her wine and Grigor was refilling the cup. Self-loathing and tears snarled behind her eyes. She asked Grigor, words run on too fast, “So what is with the seagull then? Did you and your friend …”

“Tai,” Grigor said.

“Did you and Tai think this was a costume party?”

Tai, the friend with the dragon-throated lilies and the skull, was halfway up the stairs, talking fervently to a plump, dark-bearded guy in a grubby “New Zealand Sesquicentennial” T-shirt and braided smoking cap with a gold tassel. He was rolling a joint and looking immensely entertained.

Grigor looked over her head again. “It’s not a costume, it’s a message.”

“S.O.S? Save our Seagulls?”

He either didn’t hear her, or thought the quip beneath him. He placed the recorked wine bottle between his feet and rummaged around in his satchel. He drew out a small object, and looked at in his palm as if ascertaining its true value.

“I make these,” he said.

At first she thought it might be a coat button, or a fat pill, but it was a tiny, ugly black brooch.

“I use typewriter keys for the backs.”

There was a sharp, two-pronged tooth mounted on top. “It’s a feline, not a canine,” he said, with the twitch of a smile.

“Wow.” She sounded flat.

“Mourning jewellery,” he said. “Memento mori. Like the Victorians made. ‘In the midst of life we are in death.’ ’’

“Was it  …  your cat?” A sense of the ludicrous bubbled up as soon as she said it. She wasn’t sure whether to address this person as a man or a child. Her judgment slipped and slid as if the wine had sent ice crystals through her mind, and ordinary thoughts couldn’t get purchase.

“Yes,” he said. He looked down to his cupped palm again. “I’d like to give it to you.”

“Oh. Are you sure? I mean …”

“I’m sure. I get a feeling from you. I think you need it.”

She took it from his outstretched hand, squinting at the gouge that the tooth was embedded in, and the lacquered black surface around it. “Need it?”

He pressed his lips together for a moment, a mixture of pity and amusement. “Anything that helps you play outside the square. I think you could do with the reminder, sorry.”

“Sorry, why sorry?” And where had she learnt to ask people to push her harder, to shove the slight deeper? Maybe it was to know the worst. To get the blow over with.

She let her glance dart to Stefan and Vicky. She saw Vicky take another man’s hand and hold it to the expanse of skin below her collarbone and just above the line of her halter top. Vicky was wide-eyed, nodding eagerly; the man was being implored to agree, about something —her pulse, her temperature, her skin, the resonance of her voice. Stefan hung back, hangdog and hungry.

Lissa drained her cup. “Tell me,” she insisted.

“You’re sad. And you seem too nice with it. Naïve.”

“Uh huh.”

“You can do things your own way, you know.”

Bitterness swelled at how false people were. “What if I want to do it ‘nice’?”

He tilted his head. “You’ll get hurt.”

“You’re late to that party,” she said.

Something in his face softened her.

“Guess we all are,” she said. “Seagulls. Cats.”

Two of the older men were shouldering down the stairs again, one of them holding the hand of the tiny woman, who trailed behind him, blank as a streamer. People hunched and flattened themselves out of their way. As the leader reached the bottom of the stairs, he passed Grigor a wrathful frown, then he reached out and tapped Lissa on the shoulder: “Get that boy to a shrink. Or a priest,” he said, and turned away in pointed disgust.

Lissa’s stomach clutched with fear. Grigor looked mildly pleased with himself. He can’t have heard.

“Ladies and gentle-bongs, boys and girls,” he sang quietly. Then, “My sister died, you know. And my father’s an Anglican minister, thanks very much.” His sarcasm was fired in the direction of the men pushing their way to the door. So he had heard. “But Dad doesn’t discuss Bronny at all. He gives sermons to strangers. About love and loss and family and community and honesty and faith. But he never talks about Bron as Bron at home.” He shuffled his satchel around so it sat against the small of his back again. “She looked like you. A bit.”

Lissa swallowed, unable to recall the specifics of her own appearance at all. “What does he think of the … jewellery?” She pointed her empty cup to the limp bird.

“He’ll hate it. I hope. Hurl thunder and lightning. Doesn’t matter. He’s already done his worst.”

Someone overhead turned the music up louder. People started shouting to a chorus. A light in the hallway swayed slightly, like a wallflower unable to resist the rhythm.

Lissa got a bad feeling. Or the bad feeling that had been gathering, gathering, a swell far out at sea, was finally too strong to ignore. It drenched her in running panic. “I have to go,” she said.

“You’re on,” he said, though she hadn’t meant to issue an invitation. He peeled himself from the corner where he’d been leaning, and with two fingers quickly to his temple he saluted his friend on the stairs. Tai mirrored him. Grigor ploughed through the crowd, as effectively as the grim-looking older men had managed earlier: people recoiled from the seagull, one guy in a peaked leather cap drawling, “That’s rancid, man!”

One or two partygoers near the door, though, pretended to block the way: some kind of half-cut joke. Lissa plunged under their obstructing arms, launched herself into the night. Out on the footpath, she spun slowly on the spot, as if winding the cool satin of night air around her. “Thank God,” she said under her breath.

“Can I give you a lift?” Grigor gestured to a moped propped up near a strip of nasturtiums and weeds alongside the driveway.

She hesitated.

“Shit,” he said, patting his pockets, rifling through his haversack again. “I think Tai still has the keys. I’ll just go back in.”

There was that swell and pound of dread in her chest again, a series of waves breaking on shore. “I’m okay,” she said. “I’d really like to walk.” Walking sometimes helped.

As he went to the front door, she said with an urgency she couldn’t explain, “Just come with me. Pick up the bike later.”

“Where are you heading?”

“Durham Street.”

“Shit, that’s miles away! You’re not going through the Gardens, are you? I wouldn’t, this time of night.”

She shrugged.

“I’ll catch you up at the bus stop near the main entrance,” he said. “Stay under the street lights.”

“Okay.”

“What’s your name, actually?”

“Lissa.”

“Lissa.” He opened his hands, like he was testing for rain. “Do fine things, Lissa!”

“What, on the way to the bus stop?”

He laughed, and her body cascaded with unbidden sweetness.

“Aren’t you going to catch up with me?” she asked.

“Yeah, yeah. But it’s never too early to say — do fine things!”

He was indisputably odd. Endearingly so. He disappeared inside, and she turned away.

Half an hour later, she stood shivering outside the Botanic Gardens in a chill night wind. No Vespa had drawn alongside her. She gave up. It was move or freeze. With fresh fear noosing her throat, she slipped past the gate and belted her way through the Gardens on her own, with only a small pocket flashlight — a gift from her dad — to show the route. Her body was pitched in a silent scream the whole way, the likelihood of an assailant feeling as real as the press of gravel underfoot.

More than half an hour later she was a jangle of anxiety, coated in sweat, leg muscles aching, one hamstring feeling properly pulled, and telling herself, Never, ever do that again, next time have enough money for a taxi, or just stay at the party till dawn, never, ever again as she fell, shattered, into bed. She was exhausted, yet adrenaline and wine kept her tossing and turning until just before sunrise.

She dreamed then of Grigor. A heavy, dark-plumaged mollymawk that hung around his neck, much larger than the real bird he’d worn, stirred and lifted. It carried him into a bruised-plum sky. He was sleeping, but laughing softly, the way Lissa’s mother used to when reading to herself, tucked in a corner while everyone else watched TV.

Lissa slept till noon, but woke with a raw, unexpected longing, wondering how to track the strange man-boy down, wondering whether he had decided, once back at the party, that there were better distractions there.

She kept to herself all day, dozing on and off over books and essay notes, so didn’t hear the news until she was cooking with her flatmate, Yolanda. Yolanda turned the radio to the student station. She liked the Sunday night DJ; had met him dancing at a club about a month ago, saw him round campus, was trying to summon the courage to ask him for coffee. So it was his voice they heard after My Bloody Valentine’s “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, which they’d chopped onions to, bopping and swaying, heads tossing when the vocals fell away and the guitar and drums duked it out for most cacophonous.

The DJ was stop-start, jittery-amateur, as if only taking in what he said a second or two after he announced it. There had been two deaths and several serious injuries at a party at a central-city address the previous night. A fight had broken out: someone pulled a knife. Two floorboards gave way in the cramped upper-storey lounge where people had begun pogoing to music. Boys with their bovver boots and Jack Daniels. Girls with their back-combed fringes and cask wine. The way the DJ told the story was a little confusing. It wasn’t clear whether the fight or the caving floor caused the stampede, or whether the fight and the flat damage were related. Either way, the identities of the dead wouldn’t be released until next of kin were notified.

“Shit,” said Yolanda. “I was going to be at that party.”

Lissa’s denim jacket hung on the back of a kitchen chair. She slipped a hand that barely felt like her own into one of the inside pockets and found the brooch. She tried to see something arresting, symbolic, in the pronged tooth: a forked and flowering branch, maybe; a pair of wings. But it remained a small, awkwardly made and macabre curiosity.

*

Every few years, she came across the dark little gift again when moving jobs, cities or countries. It would be there in a desk drawer, among cards and letters from her parents with their separate return addresses. It always jolted her, like a jag of static electricity, releasing Grigor’s words, and the image of his half-remembered face, as though she’d just caught sight of him from a speeding vehicle. She’d turn the badge to see the catch at the back; flip it over again, run finger and thumb across the top, this trinket like a single prayer bead made of lignite. She’d imagine the bite in that once-living tooth. She never wore it, but she’d touch the glossy fang, which was smooth and cool as headstone marble, before she stowed it away again. She would drink in a deep breath, as if she stood on some other shore, its midnight vista beaded with frost, then she’d refocus, get on with the next thing.

Short story: Stray, by Emma Neale

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