Frankie, from my book group, picks up my red wooden statue from the kitchen bench. ‘My mother told me never to go to bed with a bench left messy,’ she says.
She has come to help me sort out my kitchen and living room. I don’t recall asking her. She just invited herself, really. Well, maybe I had been complaining about the small amount of space I had for myself in my apartment and how things crowding my living space made me feel uncreative and lethargic.
Frankie has arrived with yellow rubber gloves and two black rubbish sacks. The phrase Swedish Death Cleaning comes immediately to mind. We both look at the kitchen bench which despite my best efforts is often crowded with objects. Don’t even ask me what. Or how they get there. I am a big believer in that theory about how things get messy and out of control when someone is not even living in the room or the house. I swear it has even happened to me. I go to bed one night leaving the apartment tidy and when I get up the next morning, there is the mess.
Now she holds the red statue, which I am sure used to stand on the bookcase, at arm’s length. ‘These are two a penny in Vietnam,’ she says. ‘I saw them on the university history department trip there.’ Frankie is an administrator in the department. The lecturers might plan lectures and do all kinds of research but as far as Frankie is concerned, she’s the one who tells people what to do. Sometimes it sounds like she alone runs the place. ‘Not even hand-carved.’ She looks at me expectantly.
‘She made a long journey to get here. She chose me, you know. I’m sure of that.’
Frankie sighs. She is a very down-to- earth person. ‘Chose, schmose,’ she says, as if she is talking to one of the students who has said he wants to choose another course. Not history. Although why I have thought of this, I can’t say.
‘I like it,’ I say. ‘I like to look at it.’ I do. I like the little hat she wears, and the small bumps that are her chest.
Frankie frowns. ‘Liking is different from needing,’ she says.
‘But what about that famous William Morris quote?’ I return. ‘He said, “Have nothing in your house that you don’t believe to be useful or beautiful.”’ I have her now.
Frankie, however, appears unfazed. ‘Never heard of it.’ She hefts the black rubbish bag, ready to proceed. ‘Where is the beauty in a tawdry badly painted mass-produced object cluttering up a perfectly good bench? And what use is it, exactly?’
I could tell her it protects me.
The first night I joined the book group, Frankie took me under her wing. After the group, she insisted she and her husband, Geoffrey, would see me home even though I lived within walking distance. ‘You can’t be too careful,’ she said. ‘Not around this neighbourhood.’ Geoffrey, a big balding man with a paunch drove us in their little Mazda.
I was surprised a week later to find Geoffrey knocking on my door. I found myself staring at the gold chain dangling in his chest hairs. He said he was driving by and noticed a flashing on my roof was loose. Did I want him to fix it?
I said, I’d tell the landlord. He’d pop around and fix it. For no good reason, I said the boxing club my landlord was a member of wasn’t far from my flat.
Geoffrey said, Fair enough, good to know. ‘But if you do get any problems in the apartment that you don’t want to bother him with, here’s my card.’ I glanced down at it. ‘No job too small,’ it read. His hand stroked mine as I took it from him. ‘I’m your man.’ He looked down my top as he spoke. I was sure he winked at me before he left.
After the next meeting, I teamed up with one of the other book group members who also lived nearby and walked with her. It became a regular thing.
But just recently, someone said Justine, the youngest of our group who lived in the opposite direction from us, wasn’t coming to book group any more. She was sure a man had followed her home after the last book group. Whenever she looked back, he was the same distance behind her. He disappeared when one of her neighbours came out on the street to put his recycling bins out.
I remembered the last meeting. I was sure that was the night when Frankie wasn’t there. She’d had to go up north to see her elderly mother, someone said.
Even now I can’t be sure of my suspicions. I don’t tell Frankie about the protection.
Instead, I remove the statue carefully. I say I know some place I can take it, a charity shop that would be glad to receive it.
I turn her attention to the drawer under the kitchen bench. She takes great delight in throwing old raffle stubs, Lottery tickets, paper clips, drink bottle lids and bits of Tupperware whose use can’t be readily identified into her black sack. I let her throw some perfectly good unmatched linen I never use into the Goodwill bag.
After Frankie has gone, dragging the black sack behind her, I go into my bedroom and lay the statue down in a drawer, tucking her inside the folds of a soft cashmere sweater. ‘Not for long,’ I promise the Red Lady. Now I am the one who must do the protecting. Whatever it takes.
Kate Mahony’s fiction has been published in, most recently, Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, Canterbury University Press, 2018, and Mayhem, Waikato University Literary Journal, New Zealand, 2019, The Blue Nib (Ireland) Fictive Dream, 2020. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University, Wellington. http://www.katemahonywriter.com
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