from Home Fires
Mrs Spears from next door came to visit with a jar of chutney for Sylvia and Bea, crocheted booties for the new baby. When she heard his name she said, He’s doomed. Her husband had just died of asbestos poisoning.
At school they thought he couldn’t spell. They corrected him by printing an R after the F. He quietly rubbed out their efforts.
His mother Sylvia went to work in an office where typewriters tapped out metal rhythms and industry was sounded by a bell at the end of a line. His grandmother Bea made his breakfast and taught him to shake hands firmly. She put plasters on his knee scabs in summer, wool hats on his head in winter.
In the school holidays they rode the train into town to meet Sylvia for lunch. The lift took them to the twelfth floor of an old concrete building. He watched Sylvia’s red fingernails dance over the keyboard, pull the freshly printed sheet from the roller, place it in a folder with a satisfying click. He forgot to ask for the toilet and left a puddle under his shoes in the lift.
Why didn’t you tell me? Sylvia’s nails pressed all the buttons.
Bea growled. Leave him.
Bea pulled a newspaper from her handbag and mopped up the pee. At James Smith’s he got new undies, shorts and a custard square. When he bit into it the pastry broke and custard fell in chunks off his chin onto his new shorts. Sylvia rolled her eyes.
Jeezus Federico, she said.
Going home in the train, the smell of dust and engines in his nose, he asked Bea a question.
Why aren’t I called Fred? It had been bothering him for a while.
Bea took her eyes off the gorse and green of the Ngaio Gorge. She looked at him.
You could be anything with your name, which is why I thought of it.
All the type keys in his heart got pressed at once and stuck together.
You called me Federico?
Well, I suggested it. And for once Sylvia listened to me.
The train entered the tunnel and the windows went dark. The letters of his name untangled themselves and stood clear in their own white space.
The moment before light disappears
Lying on the sofa, he likes to peer into the gaps between the cushions. There it’s dark and smells of dusty polyester. The inside is lined with black cotton quilting. Sometimes he finds lint, handkerchiefs. On a lucky day, a silver coin. Sometimes the sofa is a small deserted island where he must eke out an existence with a knuckle bone and a fishing rod. Between the middle cushions the lining is torn. He looks into the sofa’s inner workings, springs and plywood boards, crumbs from the cheese-on-toast he and Sylvia eat on Sunday nights.
Sylvia puts her plate down on the coffee table.
Eat your crusts, she says, eyes fixed on That’s Country. She takes a smoke out of its box. He has rolled those cigarettes under his nose, sniffed their sharp minty smell.
I don’t eat crusts, he says, looks her in the eye. He watches her breathe in deep through her nose, nostrils white and twitchy.
Fine then. She takes his plate off his lap and walks out to the kitchen.
He does not run after her or cry. That woman is not his real mother. His real mother is luminous with mystery and power, knows that crusts are not for consumption, howls through the pylons at night calling for her lost son. That woman stomping round the kitchen is a temporary measure, soon to be destroyed by dark forces.
He picks Sylvia’s pink lighter up off the table, flicks the steel round and ignites the gas. Flame rises to a peak, orange with a blue centre. He moves slowly to his stomach on the couch, carries the flame delicate as bone china. Switches the flame low and high, low and high. The metal heats up, hurts his finger. He releases the gas, the flame disappears.
On TV Ray Columbus introduces Miss Suzanne Prentice, she winks at the camera. Federico thinks she is beautiful, her shiny gold top ruffles round her neck, her hair blow-waved into voluminous parts. Miss Prentice holds the mic loose and thumps her fist in the air. She sings Life ain’t nothin’ but a funny, funny riddle, thank god I’m a country girl.
She could be my real mother he thinks and flicks the pink lighter.
He puts his fingers down the side of the cushions and touches a coin, large as a fifty cent piece. He edges his hand and the lighter inside the gap, flicks the steel for a better look. For an instant, cotton, springs and plywood are brightly lit – a silver coin glitters, there’s a sound like wind channelling a tunnel and flame leaps up the back of the sofa. Federico jumps up, drops the lighter at his feet and watches fire spill over the cushions and arms.
Never has he witnessed such perfect lack of hesitation. Inside the boy, time slows down, halts. Grey-black smoke lowers. The room, sofa and fire become distilled as an image, loose brush strokes in an oil painting. This is the moment before light disappears. At the centre of this – a boy, not clearly seen if you look too quickly, almost transparent, the colour of smoke.
Flames rise up to the ceiling, dance under the plastic light shade round the light bulb. Above Federico the bulb shifts and cracks, an explosion of glass and electrical sparks fall on his head. Flame moves down the sofa legs, foam starts to drip onto the floorboards. From what seems to be outside the house he can hear Sylvia screaming, then her hand wraps tight around his wrist, time twists and rushes. A fiery tap at his woollen socks. Sylvia wraps her arms round him, carries him from the room slamming the door shut on the hungry flame.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kirsten McDougall is a Wellington-based writer. Her current job involves lying around reading the excellent Great Sporting Moments while she waits for a baby to arrive.