Lucy squinted, blending Emma into hanging utensils and fruit-printed wallpaper, and exhaled slowly.
‘Of course I know we can’t stay here forever.’ She thought of the twin sisters, in their fifties, who lived together down the street when she and Em were young. They would watch, giggling, as the ladies left their house together every day in their slightly different haircuts. Lucy would laugh, but felt so bad for them it hurt, and waited in vain to see them with anyone but each other. But she and Emma weren’t twins, and they weren’t old, so it was different. ‘I just … I don’t want flatmates.’ Lucy was twenty-one. She was aware of how lame she sounded.
Emma smiled at her, the way doctors holding needles smile at children. ‘I know. But it’s not for whole month, anyway and Tim and I can help you find a place, or new person?’ Her question mark squeaked. She raised her eyebrows, studied Lucy’s face. ‘You know, Mum probably wouldn’t mind if you took your time getting another person in … you know, you could wait for the right fit? If you wanted?’
Lucy looked out the window at the glarey afternoon, where the still-damp washing was writhing away from its pegs. Emma gave a small sigh, but didn’t stop smiling. ‘I’m actually excited about it, Luce,” she said. ‘With Tim’s promotion, we can get a place right in the city … an apartment!’ She grinned at the thought, and hopped backwards onto the kitchen counter, her bare feet thudding against the cabinets below. Lucy remembered when their Dad had to sand and repaint those cabinet doors after she’d scribbled on them in marker pen. He gave her a rough rectangle of blue-green sandpaper and a block of cork to wrap it around, to help.
Emma sighed again and leaned back, propping herself up on her arms. Her heels drummed a rhythm on the cabinet doors.
‘Ooh, Tim,’ Lucy imitated her, making his syllable moony and ludicrous, dragging out the ‘m’ at the end. ‘Super, so I can come and hang out with you and your Tim, it’ll be just great! The two of us, a stupid flatmate, and Tim!’ Lucy’s voice and breathing were louder than she thought they’d be.
‘You’ve been together for two seconds!’ Lucy continued helplessly. ‘Who is he!’
It didn’t take long for the hurt to dissolve from Emma’s face, and then she looked up at the ceiling, exactly how their Mum used to. ‘We’ve been together over a year, Luce,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘You just…you can’t… ’ She gave her sister a look, pleading. Lucy had no idea what it meant.
There were dishes everywhere. It was Lucy’s turn, but Emma usually did them anyway. Lucy reached out and poked at some old bread crusts, frilled with brown lettuce. She twisted them, making breadcrumbs. When her eyes eventually found their way back to Emma, her sister’s face had clouded over. ‘Whatever, I’m going out. I’ll see you later.’ She waited, watching Lucy from under lowered eyelashes.
Lucy remembered when they had to hold hands to cross the street, the fuzz on her glove curling like velcro into the pale yellow wool of Emma’s mitten.
Emma twisted off the bench, feet slamming into lino. ‘Or something.’
Lucy bit into a lump on the inside of her cheek. She heard the joints of the rusting coat-rack whine as Emma wrenched her coat from its clutches, and the whoosh of wind as a door was almost slammed, but caught just in time and shut, nicely. As the lock clicked Lucy’s shoulders relaxed, and she sat for a minute there.
‘Have fun with Timmmm,’ Lucy told the empty room, then wandered pointlessly into the darkening hallway, past the coat-rack smothered in old coats her mum had left behind. She wouldn’t be needing them in Brisbane. Soundlessly, a flimsy gold zebra-patterned scarf billowed away from Lucy as she passed. When she was little, she’d thought her mum was impossibly elegant. Anyway, if her mother needed a coat Roger could sort her out, with one swish of a Mastercard. The lounge door chipped more paint off the wall as it swung back. Lucy stayed standing in the doorway for a full minute before remembering to flop onto the couch. Emma was only twenty. Twenty, playing grown-ups. Lucy surveyed the congealed mess left on the various plates and bowls that populated the floor, their forks fixed in place with foody glue.
After their dad died, the house had looked like this for months. Lucy had been sitting there, on that same couch when Emma started cleaning it all up. She’d stared into nothing as she listened to her little sister clattering plates into stacks with chubby six-year-old hands, ferrying them to the kitchen to be swallowed by the grease-grey suds. It used to be Lucy who was tidy, who’d helped Dad clear the table every night. Their mum would look on with a glass of white while he scooped up forks and glassware with his giant, blackened mechanic’s hands. Lucy always imagined his clumpy blond hair to be full of exhaust fumes; that when she ruffled it a puff of swirly pollution would rise out and up and swirl around, higher and higher above her before disappearing, hissing softly into the ceiling cracks.
She pushed her fingers roughly into her hair, snaking them along her scalp. She needed to get up; the house looked big around her. She grabbed sneakers and a coat and, after looking through her bedroom window, an old woolly hat, gloves. The afternoon darkened into evening as she stepped outside. It’d make a decent photo, she thought. Auckland in October, the trees trying on their new leaves. Lucy could be in it, too, a ruddy-faced girl-woman with short red curls and round eyes, like a plain doll. In the photo you wouldn’t feel that icy chill, the wind that whips up your cuffs and stings your ears. She leant hard on the door to click the lock and almost slipped. The stairs were rotten slippery.
The first time Lucy met Tim was an accident. She’d finished work early so Emma wouldn’t have been expecting her home. When Lucy had heard a male voice coming from the kitchen she’d checked the hall over for signs of their mother and Roger’s surprise return, but found nothing. She was still not sure why her hands started shaking when she heard Emma’s giggling. She’d walked softly up the hallway and caught a glimpse of Emma sitting on the kitchen bench, leaning back, propped up on her hands. An arm sleeved in a blue shirt and silvery cufflinks slanted out behind her, its hand palm-down on their formica. The benches and sink had been cleaned, all their mess shoved out of sight. Lucy hadn’t realised she was entering the room until she heard Emma speaking to her.
‘Hey!’ Emma had said, slithering off the bench and coming to a stop with her hand resting awkwardly on the bread bin. The blue arm was immediately outstretched towards Lucy. She shook it like she was supposed to, and his palm felt like nothing.
‘Um, hey,’ she’d said, looking around her and seeing that across the hall, the lounge was tidied as well. And vacuumed. The man was short and wore shiny black shoes. He was saying something, the same sort of stuff Mum’s boyfriends said, and Lucy watched his mouth as it squeezed meaningless words out like foam. She had to concentrate not to back out of the room. He kept talking, Lucy couldn’t say how long for.
She’d been looking forward to talking to Emma, but couldn’t exactly do that with this man here. That morning someone had come into the store where she worked: a tall man with hair and eyes the colour of milky Weet-Bix, a man she’d seen before and noticed, because though he wore a suit she sometimes saw black oil sunk into the outlines of his fingernails, and rubbed in the creases of his knuckles. She’d watched him walk up to the counter and hand her a sunflower wrapped in green cellophane, smile and leave without a word. A tiny card with a cellphone number written in black ink was attached. Lucy had shoved the sunflower under the counter, and stared at the card for the rest of her shift. She’d planned on saying no when Emma asked if she’d kept it. But Tim kept talking, so Lucy never told her about that man, and never saw him again.
Emma once asked Lucy if she was a virgin during an ad break, and Lucy remembered being struck then by the idea that Emma mightn’t be. They were 16 and 17, and Mum was out. Emma was watching Lucy. ‘You’re never nervous around guys; you don’t like, like them too much, or not at all… ’ She squinted at her sister. ‘Are you?’
Lucy had snorted like she was asking a stupid question, and didn’t answer. A sexy perfume ad came on, so Lucy attempted to look interested, then tried disgusted. Emma thought Lucy was kidding and threw a cushion at her, giggling. That cushion was still in the lounge, among the mess. It was Lucy’s turn to clean up.
She tilted her chin up into the evening. Unlike most Aucklanders, she’d never been bothered by walking everywhere. It’s a motorway city and as a result people were incredible, especially going uphill, puffing and whinging like it counted as a sport. Emma drove, but Lucy still walked. She liked that she could just head somewhere and turn back whenever, looking purposeful but doing nothing.
She could remember the last time she and her sister were in a car, a taxi: they were heading home after sticky drinks, out with Emma’s office friends and their lipstick. The drinks had made Lucy’s lip curl and she’d been disappointed with Lucy’s friends; they only talked about work; work and men. Like women. Lucy ate the orange off her drink’s rim, and tried to join in with their laughing conversation about ex-boyfriends. She just made one up: tall with light hair and big mechanic’s hands, but he’d keep disappearing, and his cellphone would always be ringing, and then one day he was gone. She’d been angry, of course, and sad, but by the time he started sending dozens of sunflowers she’d stopped feeling anything about him at all. She smiled and shrugged and they stared at her, then they continued their conversation. Lucy had smiled secretly at Emma, wanting it to be a joke, but Emma just looked back at her.
Lucy walked at the very edge of the footpath, right next to the gutter, absently looking for treasure like when she and Emma were kids. Occasionally they’d find a few cents, sometimes dollars, and it would be amazing and they would tell everyone about it for weeks. She smiled. They’d decided that it was Dad, leaving it for them from heaven, like that was his angelic power. Lucy also thought that was how people got their pocket money, which she guessed was just as stupid. She wondered if Tim had money; if that was part of it. Emma’s a Junior Something at some office; threw herself into work straight out of high school, wearing stockings and climbing the ladder. Lucy hated it when people asked what she’d ‘got in mind’ for a career. She couldn’t picture anything.
She realised she’d been avoiding cracks in the pavement, so stomped hard on one so she could walk normally again.
It was during their early teens that lipstick started appearing on the rim of their mother’s dinnertime glasses of white. She was often out for most of the evening, then whole nights, so after a while her daughters stopped being sneaky about experimenting with her growing range of waxy pencils and powders, Lucy painting herself into dolls and witches and Emma pouting like her favourite movie stars. Their mother would come home and find them asleep on her bed on pink-and-black-smeared pillows, but never said anything. They’d wake in the morning to find her sleeping on the couch in her coat. Lucy still felt foolish in make-up.
She ended up on Tim’s street, a polystyrene avenue lined with cute houses and tended gardens. Sweet-smelling smoke streamed past her, horizontal in the wind. Between branches of pohutukawa she could see Tim tending a barbeque with a few other stylish men, and Emma, looking like her Mum in a deep blue beret. They were all laughing. Lit by the barbeque and a full, crackling wrought-iron brazier, the group looked unreal, like a film. Emma gave Tim a squeeze around his waist and walked off the set, into the house. The smell of steak and onions sent Lucy back to barbeques at their aunt’s old place in Mairangi Bay, when their Dad would visit his sister. She and Emma were thrown in with an ever-changing cast of kids, making new best friends in minutes and making up games to play with the dogs, asthmatic with laughter. Late into the night, they would fall asleep together on the porch hammock listening to the adults’ voices blending with the radio and the sea.
Lucy watched the group like they were a movie or a memory, and made her way into the pebbly driveway. Dad used to tend the barbeque, and let Lucy help him. Emma and Mum would be inside, sorting out sweet lemony salad and margarining soft slices of white bread. Tim suddenly looked so young, flipping steaks, like a six-year-old girl in high heels.
‘Lucy?’ Tim said to her. She was in front of them. They were all staring. Lucy smiled at his forehead and nodded at the empty doorway. ‘Are you after Emma?’ he asked.
She opened her mouth and frowned at the tongs he was holding, bright green, moulded from some sort of space-age plastic and smeared with blood and grease. When she looked up, Tim’s friends seemed closer to her. Their hair looked too clean.
‘Okay, well … she’s inside.’ Tim was watching her, tilting his head to the side like she was an exhibit. ‘Go for it,’ he finished, nodding towards the porch. He tried smiling at her again, but Lucy had nothing. She worried that when she walked again she’d fall and they’d laugh.
They kept staring as she stepped backwards and pivoted to the house. Lucy realised she couldn’t have been breathing that whole time, and took in the cold night air with a great gasp as she mounted the porch steps.
She closed her eyes inside the house, watching green dots chase each other over her eyelids. She moved further inside, her stomach tightening with each step. She discovered Emma in the kitchen. She didn’t say anything when Emma turned around, just pursed her lips, twisting them over to one cheek. Emma didn’t say anything either.
‘Okay, I missed you,’ Lucy explained, let out a hopeful little laugh. She was nervous.
Emma’s eyes were narrowed, but the rest of her face was amused. ‘So you want to stay for dinner, then.’
Lucy looked in the direction of the front lawn and back again. ‘Um. Yeah. Thanks.’ She smiled at her sister, and nodded, and grinned.
‘Great, that’s great.’
Lucy was about to speak as Emma turned back to the salad. ‘You’ll like Tim’s friends,’ Emma said, and Lucy shut her mouth. ‘They’re, you know, funny… ’ She heaped grated carrot into the salad bowl, peered in the oven. Water flew like embers onto her arms as she clattered around in the sink, scrubbing at an expensive-looking chrome kitchen knife.
‘Hey, sis,’ Emma smiled back at Lucy over her shoulder, ‘Can you tell Tim the garlic bread and everything’ll be about five minutes?’ They’d never called each other “sis” before, and Lucy went to tease her about it.
‘Thanks,’ Emma said, turned back around. Lucy looked at the back of her head.
‘Sure,’ Lucy replied, and left the kitchen.
From their end of the house the front doorway drew a rectangle around Tim and the others, joined now by a few girls who were pouring out glasses of white. There were four boys and three girls. But there would be Emma as well; then it’d be even. Lucy leaned against the wall, watching them and listening to the clatter of dishes behind her. She held her hands up to form a rectangle of her own around the boys and girls, like a photo.
The soles of Lucy’s shoes squeaked softly along the polished wood of the long hallway and paused at the porch steps. She sucked down the scent of trimmed pohutukawa and steaksmoke.
She could feel adult eyes on her as she rushed past them, crunching over the pebbles in dirty pink sneakers and mismatched wool. As soon as she rounded the corner, she ran.