Every day we drive past Katherine Mansfield’s house to get to school. Mum accelerates up Tinakori Road, slowing at number 25 to look at Katherine’s white box. That’s what she calls her: Katherine. Do you see Katherine’s house, sweets? Katherine’s house is lovely, yes? Gives you some sort of feeling? And then she will roll down her window and give Katherine an enormous wave.
You do know she is dead, I say.
Sure, Mum says, waving, I’m just living a little.
At school we read some of Katherine’s short stories, like ‘Prelude’ and ‘Bliss’. The teacher asks who has been inside the Mansfield house, the one on Tinakori Road, with its garden and piano and photo of a three-month-old baby. Everyone puts up their hand except me and Cha-yong, the new boy from South Korea.
Mum, I say, when she picks me up, why haven’t we been inside Katherine’s house yet?
Sweets, she says, pulling out into the traffic, don’t you think it’s nicer looking from the outside?
In June, Katherine’s house shuts down. For renovations, Mum says. I ask her if it will reopen. Surely, surely, Mum says, but she is tapping her fingers against the steering wheel. The social worker, who comes every day at 5pm, looks stern. He watches as she removes her plastic bottles from a cabinet in the bathroom. He watches as she chugs her pills down. When he leaves she looks at me and smiles.
Sweets, she says. Nothing to worry about here.
We keep an eye on Katherine’s house that winter. The sign out front is cleaned. The fence is repainted, the roof replaced. We watch as furniture comes out and goes back in. We see the gardeners planting cinerarias, pot marigolds, arum lilies. Mum has a brochure in the car with a list of all the plants. Its edges are torn.
Maybe we can go inside, when it’s open? I ask, nervous.
Surely, surely, Mum says, fingers tapping.
At school we are still reading Katherine’s stories, like “At the Bay” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” I learn about Katherine’s death from tuberculosis.
Mum, I say, one day when she picks me up, Katherine died from tuberculosis, it’s a disease of the lungs.
Oh, Mum says. She is still wearing her pyjamas, even though it’s the middle of the afternoon. She has crumbs on her dressing gown and her eyes are puffy. She is silent as we pass Katherine’s house. Past the cabbage tree and the green benches.
At home, Mum shuts herself in her room. I unpack my lunchbox, my textbooks, my PE uniform. At 5pm the social worker comes, watches Mum swallow her pills, leaves.
I’m sorry, she says. You know how I get.
Every second weekend Mum drops me off at Dad’s. Dad has a partner called Misaki, a small woman who cooks sukiyaki, wears A-line skirts, goes for casual walks up Mount Kaukau. Usually they’re civil, except when Mum accidentally reversed over their letterbox and drove away laughing. Dad will ask me when we’re alone, How’s Mum? Good, I tell him, she’s good, and he will look relieved, will look over my head, clear his throat, will leave the room to find Misaki. We won’t mention Mum again until she comes to pick me up, 6pm on Sunday. She parks in the driveway and honks the horn.
Why doesn’t she ever come in? Misaki will ask.
Oh, you know, Dad will say, shrugging apologetically. I’m never sure who he’s apologising to, me or Misaki.
One Sunday evening in August, Mum comes to pick me up. Instead of waiting in the car like usual, she knocks on the front door. Dad opens it.
Miriam, he says with surprise.
Good evening, Mum says. Except she’s slurring. She’s swaying on the spot.
Is she drunk? Misaki hisses at me.
I want to say I don’t know, I’m just a kid, but I do know. I know that her car will be filled with wine bottles. I know that our house will be messy. The floor will be covered in apple cores, slippery boxes of Indian, lolly packets. Tomorrow there will be no petrol in the car.
She’s not going home with you tonight, Dad is saying. Mum begins to swear. Misaki looks like she’s about to cry.
Stay here the night, Dad continues. You can’t drive like that.
Somehow he manages to get Mum inside. She is wearing a bright green coat that nearly touches the floor. She has on her favourite blue boots and a crimson scarf. Between the three of us, we manage to calm Mum down. I take off her coat and we put her on a mattress in my bedroom.
I’m sorry, she giggles. She stinks of alcohol. I take off her shoes.
I’m sorry, she says again.
I don’t go home that week. Dad takes me to school, except we don’t go down Tinakori Road. We don’t see Katherine’s house. On Friday, after school, Dad comes to pick me up.
Cassie, darling, he says. I can tell by his voice that Mum’s had another episode. We drive to a quiet street in Karori, to a grey box building with large windows. Mum’s on the top floor.
Sweets, Mum says when we arrive. She’s in bed, lying under a weighted blanket. A nurse approaches, rattling pills. She’s efficient, watches as Mum swallows them. I notice the bandages on her forearms. Dad’s seen them too; his face is tightening, like a screw. The nurse leaves and Mum looks over at us.
Cassie, she says, like she’s still half asleep. Dad’s arm creeps around my shoulders. I want to go closer, run my fingers along her arm. Instead, I look down at my hands, at the jutty-out bones of my wrists.
Cassie, Mum says again. Dad is squeezing me to him. His fingers bite into my shoulder flesh. I am still looking at my wrists. They look like tiny mountains.
Slowly, Mum closes her eyes. Turns her head away.
When Katherine’s house reopens, our teacher takes us on a class trip. The bus parks right outside Katherine’s fence. The lady who greets us wears a soft blue dress, tells us that the walls have been freshly painted.
Katherine’s house, she says, is as accurate as ever.
We take a tour through the scullery, the kitchen, with its sideboard of pretty floral plates and jars of preserves. There’s a window overlooking the back garden, which we’re told used to slope into a gully. Now it’s flat and there’s a sculpture of Katherine’s head. We walk through the dining room, past a table set for people who died a century ago. Past heavy, musty furniture, stuffed birds, dark drapes, a photo of Katherine’s parents, her three sisters, her teenage aunts. A photo of another sister, who died as a baby, of a brother who died during World War I, by a grenade that accidentally exploded in his hand. The guide takes us up the stairs, points out the bamboo-shaped balusters, the night nursery. The children’s bedroom where Katherine had nightmares.
Mansfield, the guide says. The poor thing. She suffered from night terrors her whole life.
When we are taken to see the doll’s houses, a tremor runs through the class. There’s a display on, the room is stuffed with them. We can barely fit inside. The girls spill across the carpet, oohing at the small figurines, and even the boys are admiring the curves of the roofs, the pillars holding up the verandahs, the little lamps inside the windows. I am drawn to a house in the corner. Its walls are spinach green. The front of it swings open, revealing two dolls, a man sitting in an armchair, a woman opposite him. The way they are sitting makes them look dead.
The guide comes to stand beside me. She looks down. That’s Mansfield’s doll’s house, an exact replica, she says.
Oh, I say, staring.
The guide continues, Yes, see that little gravy boat, that little lamp there, a story was written about that, about class divides. Mansfield was a great lover of dolls.
She walks away and I am suddenly angry. The house looks so perfect. I want to close the tiny lace curtains and tip over the perfectly carved chairs. I want to step on the miniature tea set and watch it shatter across the carpet. Instead I reach in and take the doll. The woman. The plastic is cold. I slip her into my backpack, making sure no one is looking. Then I reach up. I grab the front of the doll’s house, the wall that swings open. Slowly, tenderly, I pull it closed.
When the tour is over, we sit in the garden while our teacher reads us “The Garden Party.” The grass is still damp. When the teacher finishes, everyone looks confused. Cha-yong puts up his hand.
Why is she happy, because the man is dead?
The guide, who is standing nearby, looks delighted.
Well, she says, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
No one really questions this, not even the teacher, and when we get up to leave, there is a strange silence. We file out of the garden, down the driveway and back into the bus.
After school, Dad takes me to the clinic to see Mum. This time he drops me off, telling me he’ll be back in an hour. Mum is looking better, her skin is shinier. It looks like the nurses have washed her hair.
Sweets, she says. How was Katherine’s house?
I tell her about the drawing room, the dining room, the servery. The freshly painted doors, the room wrapped in Katherine’s timeline. I tell her about the doll’s house, slipping the plastic woman out of my bag. I hand it to her, trembling.
Mum takes one look at it. Then, she begins to laugh.
The day that Mum leaves the clinic, it’s Misaki who drives us. She waits downstairs while I help Mum pack her things into an old backpack. I watch as she throws in an assortment of plastic bottles, bottles with labels printed on their sides. She carefully places Katherine’s doll in one of the bag’s pockets. She looks over at me. Her eyes are strangely clear.
Bet Katherine was on drugs, she says.