from No Confession
Once a month I would go to a restaurant called Steak in the Heart with my stepfather for Sunday dinner. He liked to go early, ‘To get it out of the way,’ so we ate at five-thirty alongside the tweeds and twinsets. Ledelle was a waitress there.
I was twenty-four. Ledelle was twenty. Did that make a difference? After we slept together for the first time, she told me she was originally from Bulls. It was a kind of confession. She showed me Bulls on Google Maps on her phone.
‘Weirdest name for a town I’ve heard of,’ I said.
She shrugged. ‘Never really thought about it.’
‘You’re Bulls’ best ever export,’ I said, inexplicably.
‘What a weird thing to say,’ she replied. ‘You weirdo you.’
She lived walking distance from the factory where I worked, where I was an apprentice in plastics extrusion. Her place was next door to a petrol station. We bought all our groceries there. After we’d been together for four months, in the dark one night when I was almost asleep, she said, ‘Do you love me?’
‘What about now?’ she said, and licked my forehead like a puppy.
She was interesting; I was boring as hell. She liked my cock, though. She would tell me every time. ‘God, I love your cock,’ she would say, as she sighed and shuddered, or curtained my face with her hair, or kissed me.
We shared stories after work, which was one of the best things. Her stories were always wonderful, like plays or performances, delivered with dinner or during the ads, and just for me. I would tell her stories too, but mine never cut it. I just said what happened, and they were always over too quickly. No suspense, no tension. After a while I started to resent the plastics extrusion industry for its lack of comic potential.
She’d moved to Auckland to make some cash. But you don’t work at Steak in the Heart to become rich, and coupling up with me was hardly following the money. After a year we left the city. Ledelle wanted to be closer to her family, who were still in Bulls.
‘You want to move to Bulls?’ I said. We were in bed at the time, as usual. I curled into her shoulder so she couldn’t see my face.
‘God no. I hate Bulls.’
‘It’s so small,’ she said.
‘But your family?’
‘That’s the other problem.’
‘Hang on,’ I said.
‘Didn’t you say about want to be closer to your family?’ I said.
She nodded. ‘Nothing like family.’
‘So why not Bulls?’ Now it sounded like I wanted to go to Bulls.
‘Jesus, I don’t want to be that close to them. They drive me nuts.’
So, we would move to Palmerston North. Cheap housing, her family would be close (but not too close), and they could babysit whatever kids we might have. We’d already talked about kids. Once we’d decided to move to Palmerston North, we had sex – to formalise the agreement. I had an orgasm so big it hurt and then I slept like she’d clubbed me.
We formalised the agreement in another way too. ‘You’re so young,’ I said, after I’d proposed and she’d said yes.
We got married before we left Auckland. Her family drove up for the wedding, and that was the first time I met them. As the reception wore on, Ledelle’s father became progressively more asymmetric, red, and sentimental. He was a big man with smooth fat pink forearms like rolls of luncheon sausage. He asked about my biological father.
‘He lives in Hong Kong in a forty-first floor apartment with a woman named Baozhai.’
‘Bozo?’ he said, squinting hard, trying.
‘My stepfather is the guy in the corner.’
He didn’t look, then said, ‘Call me Dad.’ He offered his hand like we’d just negotiated the sale of a car. I shook it and barely survived.
Ledelle’s mum (who I was to call Flo because when I told her my mother was dead she said ‘You only ever have one Mum’) looked a lot like her husband, and they always sat in my mind as a matching pair, like decorative book-ends. When we drove through Bulls on the way to Palmerston North, Ledelle pointed out their house and we didn’t stop.
We’d have the honeymoon later on, we said.
There was an auction for a house with a spa pool. We put in a starting bid, and that was it. It was an advantageous market.
We got a kitten to help fill the house. We splashed out and bought a pedigree. A British shorthair. We called him Palmy. He was, objectively, the cutest thing either of us had ever seen. However, within hours of being cute, he started pissing. He didn’t just piss in the corner behind the door, or in the laundry cupboard. No, he pissed everywhere – the couch, the shower, my shoes, Ledelle’s pillow. He did this for a couple of weeks, ceaselessly. Then, with a suddenness and determination and decisiveness that shocked us both, Palmy died. He had pissed out the spark of life itself. It was, we found out, a disease called feline infectious peritonitis. We buried Palmy in a shoe box in an unmarked grave in the back yard, and afterwards I had this horrible feeling that I had made the grave too shallow. I told Ledelle about my fear. She looked at me, her sight piercing my skin right through to my inadequacies, and said, ‘Probably.’
I wrote a tally, not long after that, when I first started to wonder. The tally had two columns, one listing reasons I was with Ledelle, and the other listing – at my best guess – the reasons she was with me. I found myself doodling on my list and needing more paper for hers. What should I do? I did what anyone would have done. I kept quiet.
Money was a way to compensate. I started as a builder’s labourer. I swept up all the dust and plastic and crap that the builders and plumbers and sparkies left around. I started to feel like a kid again, being told what to do and doing it. I had this idea that the job would help me feel masculine, sweating all day at manual labour, but it didn’t. I just felt childish.
I didn’t tell Ledelle this, because it would have materially damaged my tally. The problem was that we would still tell work stories when we got home. When I didn’t want to talk about it, it felt like I was hiding something from her, which of course I was, and which of course she knew, because she was smarter than I could have been if I’d had three heads.
Ledelle said she wanted to talk to me. The kitchen table wobbled when I rested my hands on it and by reflex I inserted the flexible toe of my shoe under the short leg.
‘We talked about having kids, right?’ she said.
Yes, we had.
‘Do you want to start trying?’ she said, and started to cry, quite suddenly but also quite powerfully. She said she didn’t know why she was crying. I said of course, yes, let’s start trying. ‘You sure? It’s a big commitment,’ she said, wiping her eyes.
‘I love kids,’ I said, which was true enough.
That night I developed erectile dysfunction. To start with, those first few times, she didn’t hold it against me. Even when she did start to feel resentful, we were still sort of okay. We were less okay when, after a few more unsuccessful attempts, and with me being on the receiving end of vastly unsatisfied sighing, I said something I shouldn’t have. I implied that she might be partly to blame. I said, ‘When you’re so eager it makes it worse.’
I went to the doctor.
‘What’s the trouble?’ the doctor said.
‘My wife and I are trying to get pregnant.’
‘Yes, thanks, but,’ I said.
‘I’m having trouble, you know.’ I made a gesture.
‘How old are you?’
‘Twenty-five.’ He nodded slowly. He made me fill out a questionnaire, all about my erections – there was a series of pictures and I had to circle the most familiar option. He looked at the questionnaire and frowned.
‘She says I am doing it on purpose because I actually don’t want kids,’ I said. ‘That can’t be the reason, can it?’
He didn’t really answer the question. ‘It’s probably just performance pressure,’ he said. I wanted pharmaceutical help but he just said to give it time.
What do you do when your list of virtues gets shorter and shorter? Do you keep on getting up each morning, going to work, coming home at night, do you keep on trying to be different, do your best to distract her, hope that she doesn’t notice? By the time I did start getting erections when Ledelle was ovulating – drug-assisted by this time – it felt a lot like work. The same thing over and over again, like sweeping. A repeated action, being told what to do. Ordered around.
Ledelle remained earnest, kept the calendar, measured her biology, and remained unpregnant. Unpregnant. It was a word I wanted to put somewhere, on one of our tallies, but I didn’t know who to apply it to.
A couple of years after we moved in, which was maybe a year after we began failing to get pregnant, and about two months since Ledelle had stopped getting out of bed until after I left for work, our neighbour from over the rear boundary stuck his head over the fence. Our place abutted a motel at the back, and it was the owner.
I was in the garden thinking about where to build the chicken coup. Chickens would be brilliant. We would never have to pay for breakfast again. It was Ledelle’s idea. Her parents had seventeen chickens at their house in Bulls. They sold the leftover eggs to their neighbours, fifty cents for half a dozen, which was too cheap.
‘Hello there,’ the neighbour said.
‘Piddington,’ he said, to introduce himself.
‘Tom,’ I said. I couldn’t summon the idiocy required to refer to myself by my last name.
‘Your wastewater is running onto my driveway.’
I looked at Piddington’s head, huge and hairless, hovering, and his face, eyes tracking left and right, getting in a good nosy of my backyard. He was, evidently, an arsehole.
‘What?’ I said.
‘When it rains. Your water runs onto my driveway. Makes puddles. It’s annoying my guests.’ He really had no hair on his head at all. The skin on his skull seemed impossibly thin and shiny, like a coat of high-gloss paint.
‘It’s not really my water though, is it?’
‘You need better drainage.’
‘It drains fine,’ I said.
‘Right onto my driveway. Look, the thing is, I thought I would let you know that I’m writing a letter and will be sending it through.’ He was gone.
When his huge head had disappeared it revealed the branches of a mandarin tree. I hadn’t noticed it before. It was magnificent, loaded with ripening fruit. How could a dickhead like Piddington grow such a wonderful tree? I hated him more for the beauty of his mandarins. I decided to forget about the waste water. What could he do?
I went out later that day to buy a tree. I would plant it precisely where he had stuck his head over the fence. I got a mandarin tree, on the strength of Piddington’s efforts and in an attempt to outdo him, but when I got home it turned out to be way too small. It would take years to give any privacy.
I got the letter from Piddington a week later, but didn’t read it because I was distracted. Ledelle had left me.
When I got home from work, she was gone. I opened the door, felt the cool stillness of an empty house, and saw a note on the table in a powder-blue envelope. Should I be insulted or gratified that she took the effort to find an envelope?
Tom. I’m sorry. This is not how I wanted things to be. I’m staying with my parents for a while. Ledelle.
For a while I felt superior. I thought, she’ll be back. I made myself some toast and baked beans, sat down at the kitchen table to eat them, spooning the beans onto the buttered toast just before each mouthful. Then I got angry. We’re trying to have a baby for Christ’s sake. She was ovulating now, in fact. How selfish. Then I got sympathetic. I was, after all, unworthy of her, and I had the mathematics to prove it.
I put my plate in the sink then went to the fridge and grabbed a beer. I stopped, opened the fridge again, got two more, and carried the three bottles back to the kitchen table.
After two beers it all went to hell. I pictured her having a shower after feeding her parent’s chickens in Bulls. She’d get dressed, look really good, and go to the local pub. She’d talk to men. Suddenly, realising she was unleashed of the burden of me, she’d begin kissing one of them, one of the gruff-voiced farmers with huge biceps and gristly moustaches. She’d take one to a motel. She’d put on her nighty without any knickers. The farmers would start to line up, in an orderly way, and take turns, night after night. They’d talk to each other, those farmers, in solemn and sincere tones, about how the town had really picked up. Their biceps and moustaches grew huger and gristlier with each passing second. Even the value of their farms and their price per unit for milk and wool and beef started to sky-rocket. Bulls was booming.
I drank the third beer and began to sag with exhaustion. I went to bed and stayed there for a while. A couple of weeks, I think.
Piddington came over after Ledelle had been gone for about a fortnight, to hand-serve me a copy of the letter. I hadn’t showered since I’d read Ledelle’s note. As he stood there, with that letter twitching in his hand, I hoped he could smell my odour. I took the letter and put it on the table, with the rest of the unopened mail.
‘You can’t do that,’ he said.
I closed the door in his face and went back to bed.
When I got up later to answer the phone, thinking it might be Ledelle but hearing only a pre-recorded message from some local politician, I noticed something hanging over the back fence. It was a garden hose, turned on forcefully enough to spill plenty of water onto my lawn, but not forcefully enough to give it the torsional strength to hoist itself back over the fence. It hung there like a sedated snake. The lawn was a bog. I went outside, grabbed the hedge-clippers from the garden shed, and snipped the fitting off the end of the hose and draped it back over the fence.
I waited until night. I snuck up the driveway of the Plateau Plaza Motel, Palmerston North, and around the back of the main complex. I took a peek into the reception office. He was in there, Piddington, reading a magazine. New Idea. There was a picture of Jennifer Aniston on the front. It reminded me of Ledelle, even though they looked nothing alike. What an arsehole he was, sitting there, reading New Idea.
I scurried to his impossibly successful mandarin tree and stripped it of all its fruit. I even took the green ones, and the little ones that were no bigger than marbles. I heaped them all in a sack and shoved it over the fence. It crashed to the ground into the bog beside my garden shed.
I was sitting at the kitchen table the next evening eating baked beans from the can. Piddington strolled past my window and into my back yard, where he inspected the sack of mandarins. He had a large backpack, like he was going to carry away my whole garden. He started loading the mandarins into the backpack. I walked outside, and said, ‘Oi!’ He didn’t respond, so I picked up the spade that was leaning up against the shed, and hit him.
The plan, what there was of one, had been to scone him on the back of the head – jolt him into taking notice of me. But he turned his big shiny head at the last second. Maybe I swung harder than I needed to.
The spade hit him flush on the face. It crushed his nose, making a sound like when you drive over a pine cone. A second later he seemed to deflate, and fell sideways onto the ground and curled up in the foetal position. Blood poured from the place where his nose had once been, and then quite abruptly stopped. I waited, standing over him, to see if he was dead or just stunned. I waited half an hour. Turned out he was dead.
I buried him in the backyard underneath my tiny mandarin tree. It took ages to dig the grave – the bog created by Piddington’s hose made the clay sticky and heavy, like wet concrete. At one point the blade of the spade sliced through the rotten cardboard of Palmy’s coffin, forcing me to disinter our dead cat and rebury him on the other side of the mandarin tree. I sweated through my clothes and began rhythmically swearing.
I twinged my back badly towards the end. I’d done plenty of digging at work but this was different. This was frenzied. This was personal. When I came to put him in the ground, he was heavier than seemed humanly possible. I sweated and heaved, getting blood all over me. By the time he was buried, covered in soil and packed in the earth, I really hated him.
What would Ledelle think of me now? I felt my tally, already small, erasing itself; I saw her with a pencil hovering over an empty column on the back of an envelope, and I saw her snap the pencil in half and throw it in the bin, the bin’s lid crashing down like the final symbol clash of a tragic symphony. I went inside and took my first shower for a long time, staying in until the hot water ran out.
The Police came around. A man and a woman. I decided to begin lying. They came easily, the lies, and I had to tell very few. It was as if the cops already knew and accepted them, as if my lies were easier to process, simpler, neater.
The policewoman was small, and looked a bit like Ledelle but with a different nose and blond hair instead of brown. And she had one earing in each ear whereas Ledelle had two in her left and four in her right. We sat around the dining table. They wanted to know when I had last seen Piddington. I said I couldn’t remember.
‘He’s been missing for two days,’ the policeman said. He was wearing a badge that said Constable Fleming. The woman’s badge said Officer Kepler.
‘Really?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ he said, and he took a look around my lounge and kitchen. ‘Everything okay?’ he said.
‘No.’ They were waiting for something more. ‘My wife just left me,’ I said. They took another look around and seemed satisfied that this was true. I showed Ledelle’s letter to Constable Fleming. He glanced at it briefly then looked away, but I kept holding it in front of him, so he took it and read it.
‘Oh, that’s no good,’ he said, giving it back.
I passed it to Officer Kepler and waited for her response, looking at the studs in her ears. ‘Terrible,’ she said, and shook her head.
‘She’s gone to Bulls,’ I said.
‘Bulls?’ said Kepler.
‘That’s no good,’ said Fleming.
‘Terrible,’ said Kepler.
‘Lots of farmers there,’ I said, picturing terrifying biceps and moustaches.
Kepler nodded and looked to her partner. He shrugged.
‘Right,’ said Fleming, and then they asked me about a few other things, and I made them each a cup of tea that neither of them drank. I’m not sure I boiled the water.
I read in the newspaper the next week that Piddington had been declared missing, presumed dead. He often went for long hikes without telling anyone, the article said, and his backpack was missing. He’d had some sort of anxiety disorder, and was on medication. He had been taking a lot of walks recently. There was speculation about the river, swollen from all the rain. I thought of his backpack, still half full of mandarins, leaning against the wall in the spare bedroom.
To read the remainder of this story (and others by the same writer), please go to www.allan-drew.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Allan Drew is currently completing his PhD in Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Allan’s short stories, poems and non-fiction have appeared in literary journals and magazines, and his work has won or been shortlisted in several international and national writing competitions.