“You get used to it, don’t you?”
“To people dying.”
The phone crackles, and Marnie wonders whether she can use it as an excuse to hang up. Her father, on the other end, is talking himself down a path Marnie wants no part in treading. It’s late morning, their usual check-in time. Marnie’s seated in the living room on the top ﬂoor of the townhouse she’s quarantining in. The day is warm but shrouded in sea mist. Marnie didn’t use to squirm when conversations circled death. But ever since the world concluded the pandemic was real, a small army of workers inside of her had started building a wall between her and the reality of mortality. Instead, Marnie likes to focus on what meal to make next, or the decor.
“Did you see inside before I arrived?” she asks.
“Only brieﬂy, when we dropped the groceries oﬀ.”
The muﬄe of Marnie’s mother enters the background. “Are you talking to Marn?”
“Don’t you think it’s got a strange vibe?” Marnie continues. “Three storeys for one person feels excessive. And did you see the room with purple wallpaper and the horse artwork?”
He laughs. “It might be strange for you, but the woman’s a colleague of your mother and gave us a good deal.”
“What do you mean, for you?”
He ignores her. “And, funnily enough, the people that own it are a midwife and an engraver of headstones.” He pauses. “I guess you could say they work at each end of life.”
Marnie can tell he’s proud of his observation. She sighs.
Her mother takes the phone from her father. “Stop talking about death, you two!” she laughs. “Hey Marnie, look out your window. I think I can see your home from our home.”
It’s true, a short walk along the coast and up the hill brings you to Marnie’s childhood home, where her parents still live.
Marnie wonders what home means now. Her room in San Francisco on Solano Street which used to be her home—is her home—still has some of her clothes, a painting she loves, some books she hasn’t read, her friends next door. Now she inhabits the house that belongs to each end of life, and can even stand by the window and wave at her mother and the house that belongs to who she used to be. Her mother looks like an ink smudge, waving through the dusk. Marnie smiles, the house looks like a stuﬀed olive, with its green exterior and red window frames, and she remembers the day she walked through the gate and ﬁnally realised what the new paint job reminded her of.
She wishes she could go inside the stuﬀed olive—wishes the house that belongs to each end of life might favour its original tenants and boot her out. Marnie doesn’t tell her parents this. “I need to go and make some dinner,” she announces instead. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
When Marnie ﬁrst wheeled her suitcase into the townhouse, in a jet-lag daze that made it easier to believe this return to New Zealand was only a bad dream, the ﬁrst thing she did was call her father.
“Look, if anything happens to me,” he said softly. “I want you to know I’ve always loved you.”
The day after that, he couldn’t stop talking about the mid-sixties woman who died of a stroke on her daily walk. Her body, clad in too-tight activewear, was discovered next to the public bathrooms at the beach down the road. Yesterday, it was the leaping death count in America. “Catching up to Italy,” he said. “It works fast.”
Later, Uber Eats leaves Marnie with a greasy pizza box too large to put in the rubbish bin under the sink. She looks for the larger red-lidded wheelie bin, but it’s nowhere to be found—not even in the garage. So, with the cardboard box tucked under her left arm, she pushes the handle of the front door down. There she is, on the street, in a world not accompanied by four walls. It’s the ﬁrst time she’s been outside since her arrival. The country is yet to organise quarantine regulations, and Marnie’s been too preoccupied with ignoring where she is to take herself on a walk. It’s warm for April. The moon hangs in the sky in a halfhearted sort of way, two clouds hugging its sides. The stars are hiding. Still, the night feels nice, like Marnie has just slipped into something light. Whatever the inside holds can ﬁnd no place out here, and she’s relieved. Slowly, she looks around her at the identical buildings and the way the washed-out orange, cream and yellow levels stack themselves on top of one another—with their characterless square windows refusing to blink. A security light from the opposite townhouse shines down on the bin she’s searching for, and with measured steps, she walks across the road and drops the pizza box in. Then she turns to go back inside, as though leaving something she doesn’t believe exists—like exiting out of a computer game, or walking out of the cinema. At ﬁrst, enigmatic, and with the click of the door, completely gone.
The next morning, a knock from downstairs ricochets through the house. Is it a government oﬃcial coming to check Marnie’s staying inside? Here to break her out of this domestic prison?
Neither of the above. Just the same pizza box she deposited the night before with a note attached—the pen pressed deep into the paper.
I saw what you did and I think it’s just plain rude. I have a security camera. If you do it again I’ll report you to the authorities.
Marnie’s cheeks ﬂush red. She accidentally watched a documentary on embarrassment once. It just appeared, the preview rolling, and with a reﬂex pulse of her ﬁnger, the window enveloped the whole screen. Embarrassment came from doing something socially unacceptable or frowned-upon and having it revealed to someone else. But Marnie isn’t embarrassed, she tells herself. She’s furious. Her phone begins to ring with a call from her father. Outside, rain begins to pour down.
The rest of the day goes by with a sour itch in Marnie’s throat, words trying to make their way out in little gabs. She can’t take hold of a single thought but the one involving the note from her neighbour. There are plenty of others trying to make their way through—the practised curiosity as to what the weather will be like today, the dull moan of hunger not yet shouting, the many people warranting consideration, so many friends and family members to think about—but Marnie isn’t able to get them to take centre stage, pushing them back into the wings while the one and only presses forward.
Why did that woman need to be so rude?
Which leads to another: Why has she assumed it must be a woman penning the note? Is it the handwriting? Or a buried belief that only another woman could craft up such a devilish scrap of paper? Marnie picks up a pen and slides a sheet of paper beneath it.
I don’t know what your problem is. It’s a single pizza box. I’m not dumping all my rubbish in your bin. But if you’d like me to do that, so you can call the authorities, then let me know. I think it’s a great use of their time.
After wedging the note underneath the woman’s doormat, Marnie decides to go for her ﬁrst proper walk around the neighbourhood. She plays a game where every person she sees is her still-faceless neighbour. Joggers, pram-pushers, children—all of them. She gets a small rush whenever any of them make eye contact with her—imagining them trying to compare the woman passing them by with the person in the security footage. Still, no one has the expression Marnie is looking for—something between fury, and exhilaration.
Marnie wakes to the silent shrill of another morning on her own. In those ﬁrst moments, she feels an old version of herself waking, with pillows that keep the shape of her head once she sits up, a version that lives with her mother and visits her nanna.
After checking the doormat, no note in sight, she walks to the second ﬂoor, to the room she’s designated as her staring room. Then to the third ﬂoor, where she watches an ocean that feels like it is coming for her, then down to the ground, poking her head into the uninterrupted spare bedrooms. Back up to the third. She checks the clock on the oven, her watch, and on her laptop. Time has become generous with its introductions.
She cups coﬀee and watches an aeroplane soar through the sky, a rare sight nowadays. Then, she gathers up the pieces of her clothing left in the cracks between cushions, beneath tables, along banisters, and slumps down the stairs to the empty garage and its washing machine, where she drops the pile in with the absolute intention of forgetting them later. She opens and closes the garage door over and over again from the safety of the doorway. This is a diﬀerent breed of loneliness, she thinks, surveying the noteless driveway.
For the rest of the day, she reads her book, watches a movie, and glances at the ﬁrst few sentences of an article her father had sent about the potential for new strains to develop—and still, no note.
That evening, during the nightly COVID brieﬁngs, the Prime Minister closes her speech with a friendly reminder to be kind to your neighbours.
This irony is satisfying to Marnie. Before turning the television oﬀ and retiring to bed, she walks over to the window, checking to see whether the woman’s living room is lit up with the same blue television light, which it is.
It takes two more days for a response to arrive with a satisfactory thwack against the brushed WELCOME mat.
I don’t appreciate the sarcasm.
Marnie turns the note over, looking for more, but that’s all there is. Frustrated, she writes out the URL to the video of the Prime Minister, amused at the thought of the woman having to type it, letter by letter, into her search bar.
The next response comes much quicker than the last.
I vote National.
This seems like a natural end to their correspondence, and Marnie makes a promise to herself not to reply. Self-discipline, she mutters under her breath, even as she drafts up responses in her head.
Fuck you, fuck you and your political views, fuck you and your bitterness, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.
“Did I ever tell you about the sharks?” her father asks one morning, suspiciously chirpy.
“They were at Oriental Parade. Hundreds of them.”
“Wow,” Marnie says distractedly, focussed on opening a jar of peanut butter.
“Apparently it had something to do with climate change. Never seen anything like it.”
“You should have seen the sky after the wildﬁres in Oz, Marn. I was up in Auckland, standing in your uncle’s garden. At ﬁrst, I thought a volcano might have erupted. Everything was orange.”
“Why do you always have to talk to her like it’s the end of the world?” her mother says in the background. “Tell her we can’t wait to have her home. Tell her we’ll have a cake to celebrate.”
“Did you hear what your mother said? Cake. Your two weeks are almost up. Just ﬁve more days till you can come home and eat cake.”
There’s a groan of an engine pulling into a nearby driveway. Marnie abandons a half-eaten piece of toast and walks down to the ground ﬂoor. She hovers in the doorway, watching two paramedics carry a man on a stretcher, who looks like he’s in his sixties, out of the opposite townhouse and into the back of an ambulance. All along the road, people are observing from the doorways of their respective townhouses. It’s an unusual sight, each of them hovering at the invisible line marking where they should and should not go. Some of them eye Marnie with suspicion, confused at the presence of a face they do not know, someone that isn’t a true neighbour, and therefore likely to have come from overseas. But as much as Marnie wants to go back inside, she can’t pull her eyes away from the man, half expecting his grey body to hitch itself up and say something. She looks at his hands, falling limply on either side of the navy stretcher, and wonders whether they could be the ones writing to her.
Then, as if hearing her question, a woman with gunmetal-grey hair walks out of the house in a dressing gown, her eyes ﬁxed on her husband. Marnie can hear one of the paramedics, who’s wearing head to toe PPE gear, telling the woman she won’t be able to come to the hospital, that there are procedures in place to keep her safe. A soft chorus of front doors closing ripples through the air as the neighbours decide to give the situation some privacy. Marnie follows suit, dragging the door back into its place slowly—trying not to alert the woman of her presence—but it only gives the woman time to look away from the paramedic’s face and over to Marnie, giving her a sad scowl just before the door clicks closed.
For the rest of the day, Marnie struggles to participate in the dreary routine she’s set for herself without thinking about the woman, alone in her house. After hours of back and forth agitation, Marnie picks up a pen.
I’m sorry about your husband. Is he okay?
And then, the next morning:
No. Maybe. No one’s told me anything. Terrible.
Marnie’s journeys between the woman’s front door and her own begin to feel like a dance. First, she peers out from the doorway to check for witnesses—then, when it’s all clear, darts across. Sometimes, during the day, she runs barefooted. At night, she tiptoes in her slippers. Marnie imagines the woman power walking, the note pinched in her hand, completely unafraid of being seen.
That is terrible.
You’d think they’d have better systems in place. Then, added in a diﬀerent coloured pen as though included as an afterthought: What’s your name?
Sorry about putting the pizza box in your bin.
It is diﬃcult, at times, for Marnie to completely swallow the abrupt nature of Jo’s notes. Each time she unfolds a note, she can hear the anticipation drumming in her chest, only to ﬁnd another blunt reply. She yearns for softness from someone new, something beyond a call from her father or a blue message from her regular friends that says ‘what’re you up to?’ so she can reply ‘nothing.’
Any news of your husband?
Husband’s name is Mark. Not looking good.
Marnie doesn’t know what to write back. All the platitudes that spring to mind frustrate her. That evening, news of the global death toll passing one million ﬂoods her phone. An hour later, one of her Californian friends tells her forty tornadoes are tearing through the mid-states. She picks up the pen and paper, her phone, and chucks them behind the couch.
Marnie wakes to the faint sound of someone wailing. She lies there in the darkness, waiting for it to stop—as if the noise might have escaped from a bad dream. When it doesn’t go away, Marnie sits up, ambles over to the window, and draws the curtains back. Through her half-asleep daze, everything appears normal. Then, when her eyes readjust, she notices the top left window of Jo’s house is emanating a soft orb of orange—and there seems to be smoke leaking from its frame. She blinks, willing the scene to go away, as she does so often with the news these days. But it’s still there—the headlines always are. The glow is becoming brighter, and the smoke running up into the sky is growing thick. Before she knows it, Marnie is running downstairs. She trips on a stray shoe and cascades quickly down the remaining steps before landing at the bottom. Outside, the air is still. There’s only one other person up—an old woman cradling a chihuahua—who yells that she’s on the phone to the ﬁre services. Jo’s front door handle is cold to touch. Marnie makes her way up the staircase. Everything is still intact—she can’t help but feel she’s trespassing. She turns a corner, and there, at the end of the hallway, is Jo.
“What are you doing in my house?” Jo barks. The room behind her is hissing and releasing clouds of smoke, and there’s the sound of something heavy collapsing. Marnie walks a few steps closer. The dresser near the window is engulfed in ﬂames. Framed pictures are melting into balls of black plastic. Marnie covers her mouth with her sleeve. “We need to go,” she screams. “It’s getting worse.”
Within seconds, Jo is almost completely shrouded in smoke. The whole world is shrieking, and for a moment, Marnie wonders if this is how it goes.
The two of them, together, at the end of the world.
Jo’s coughing up smoke. Then she screams, the belly of a dragon. “Well are you going to help me then? Or are you just GOING TO STAND THERE AND LET US DIE?”
As Marnie runs over to Jo, she feels as if she’s venturing deep into the organs of a dying whale. The house is crackling and groaning. She has never been athletic, but in the few seconds it takes her to drag Jo’s arm around her neck, she feels twice her size. She runs with Jo, dragging her down the staircase, until they’re outside. But she doesn’t stop—she keeps them walking until they’re out of the complex and at the docks. Leaning heavily against one another, they can hear sirens.
Marnie looks at the ocean, its waves running over waves to get to her. For a second, she forgets where she is. The water falls ﬂat, a deep mercurial soup of calm. She imagines the man rowing with his engravers tools on board, dipping thick oars into the moonlit sea, then the tinkle of water lapping at his feet as he brings the boat onto dry land. There’s the soft whisper of trees as he climbs the hilled cemetery at dusk, taking up station in a nearby shed to carve out those gulleys of Mother and Hero and Loving Husband and Father. Marnie hopes she might walk back into the house to discover the midwife has returned, shepherding babies out of rippling vaginas, proclaiming the whole world works at each end of life, don’t you see!
Then, a gust of wind blows sea spray onto their faces.
“Well,” Jo coughs, looking out to the water. “Some life this is.” Slightly oﬀ-balance, she tightens her grip on Marnie. Small jolts of electricity jump between the parts of their bodies that are in contact. It’s the ﬁrst person Marnie’s touched since hugging her Californian friends goodbye.
“Are you okay?” Marnie asks.
“Are you okay?” she repeats, louder this time.