In the Cages

Ian Richards

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The door opened and Aunty Joan put her head round it, unbidden, and unsure if she was entirely welcome. She had a long, doughy, mobile face with a prominent nose--it was the family-nose--and her greying hair on her grey old head was still piled up from getting a set yesterday, at that place near the dairy which could sometimes be a bit iffy, but good lately. Just a little extra something for after Christmas. If she had to be categorised, I'd say she saw herself as an elderly, self-sacrificing spinster. As I recall, she'd moved from Masterton to stay for a while in the house with her brother and sister-in-law two years before. Aunty Joan wore newish, smartly shining gold-rimmed glasses. She leaned further into the bedroom and spoke in a high, girlish voice.

'John, how would you be for tea?'

Her nephew sat up, still in his pyjamas. With small, ineffectual gestures he tried brushing his hair down flat.


His gangly legs--the pair of his knees pushing through his old striped pj's as he tried to arrange himself--she was sure they were getting even longer. He'd been stretched out on that orange bedspread again for heaven knows how long, just staring at those old, wee toys of his and whatnot up on the shelves. While she'd been frantically rushing round to do for him and do. Aunty Joan saw the clean clothes on his chair where she'd left them first thing this morning.

She asked, 'Why don't you put some shorts on?'

Then suddenly she thought of the beans in the pot--had she got any salt in? Better go and add a sprinkle. She turned, but once more she poked her head back round the door, to check the boy was actually coming. Because he was like that, spoiled. His mum had always gone along with anything, and his father...but oh dear. Too late now. Aunty Joan stumped off along the passageway, her powerful shoulders sloping and her broad back bent. To anyone who saw her on rare occasions off her property--at the hairdressers or shopping at the nearby superette, but almost never in town, because you never knew what went on there these days--she looked like a hopeless drudge pushing an invisible wheelbarrow, someone easily ignored. A patch of sun through the bathroom doorway lit up her faded salmon-pink floral housedress. Dust motes swirled into the sunlight from the dry, red brusella as her heavy brown shoes shuffled. It was really quite a lot of work for her dear old bones, she was tired. Thank goodness for unthawing the bread in the toaster and for the brown-sauce mix from those handy packets, those little short cuts you could have these days. Thank goodness.

The dining-room was connected to the kitchen by a breakfast bar that had been converted from before, with a handy row of cupboards above now, and more cupboards on one side. There was really quite a nice woodgrain finish on the walls which she'd chosen--John's mum, that was--and the whole thing would do. Tidy. The stainless steel sink was good and polished up beautifully. Aunty Joan put the oily chops on the plates and marched with them round to the dining-room table from the kitchen. Then she drained the saucepans of boiled new potatoes, the peas and the beans, done at last, and brought them in with a clatter and began to dish up. And John was finally coming along the passageway. In his own time. Never seen him lay a table in his life.

'That's the boy,' she said.

Most of the dining-room area was crowded up, with the table and the extra furniture that was just there for a while till all the refurbishing was done, pushed away against the walls, and hopefully not damaging the carpet too much because that was going to stay. But she'd brought some yellow freesias in anyway for prettying along her windowsill. You could probably see them from out on the footpath, or even on the street. Aunty Joan thought again it was funny how her kitchen and dining-room were at the front of the house, and that's not how she'd have wanted it--and bother, had she forgotten the mustard? On the kitchen bench by the sink, she knew where to find it. When she came back, he was sitting ready at the table, beside the telly they'd left propped up in the corner--where you could still see it if you wanted to, with the rabbit ears.

'And how's John today?' she asked.

'All right. How's Aunty Joan?'

'Oh, bearing up under the strain.'

He hadn't even shaved. Unpresentable, after spending nearly all day shut up in his room like that. Only came out when she asked him things, like would he help shift the TV set in here from the living-room. Well, all right, now she wouldn't let on where she'd left that very useful remote-thingy: it was over on the other side of the breakfast bar. Actually, she'd left it there from when she was just looking at the telly at bit, while the chops were doing--very comfy, really, to have a set all of a sudden in the dining-room. Aunty Joan remembered: 'Twenty-three was the high,' the weather-girl was saying just at the moment when she'd switched it off. Nearly thirty in Christchurch. Gosh. Like January come early, Aunty Joan thought as she sat at the table, and golly, soon be 1982 before you know it.

'That's right, boy,' she said, 'you go ahead.'

He was already cutting into his chop. Aunty Joan picked up her knife and fork and ate with her solid elbows kept carefully in.

'Got bitten by the painting bug,' she added. 'I spent the whole day going all round the windows in the living-room. And the skirting boards, eh.'

'When do they come, those men?'

That was his question--and all day he hadn't lifted a spoiled finger to help. John was scooping his peas like an American: he would go doing that, and she wished he wouldn't but, oh well. Couldn't have learned that put-on in England.

'I suppose they'll come when it suits them,' she said. 'If I can get the carpet in the living-room up, they'll lay the new one next week, or maybe the week after. Orangey-brown--nice, but what a bother. Probably have to plane something off the bottom of the doors. And the same lot, though, they've told me they'll take away the chairs for the reupholstering.' Then she thought of something. Aunty Joan put down her knife and fork. 'If it's so much excitement, you could go down to Wellington again, eh. See what jobs are doing.'

He looked annoyed, of course.

'I tried that. It's no good.'

'With your qualifications? Well...'

But she couldn't see him working for the government, really. And she was glad, in a way. Aunty Joan had wanted to be a teacher when she was little, she'd made that clear. Ended up taking care of her own mother. Twenty five years. Twenty five, she could nearly see them spilling out, ranged around her. All bunched up and scrunched, like cellophane after opening some useless, unwanted pressie, socks, crystallised ginger, the sort of rubbish you get at Christmas out of duty and nothing else. But it was done. She pushed her knife down flat against the surface of the dull, stoneware plate, almost forcing bent the knife-blade with her powerful grip, and then scraped up each remaining dollop of the brown sauce to get all of it on the back of the fork. Aunty Joan licked a stray dab from her finger.

And then someone was coming--who? Who was coming? Aunty Joan raised herself and turned awkwardly to hover and look out through the pale net curtains. She was quite in a tizz. Who? Getting out of his car to check the next-door letterbox. On the way down the right-of-way going to the back, to the Malleys', tall, and in his disreputable black t-shirt and jeans.

Aunty Joan announced, 'Well, it's young Peter. I think, everyone in that family's got their own car now, eh? What would you say, John?'

But he said nothing. Just picking at his potatoes, fussy like that.

'Well,' she said, 'your mum never thought he'd come up to much, but he's gone and finished his apprenticeship, and that's something. You know, he got himself into a wee bit of very dicey strife a while back. Pinched for driving over the limit, eh. Still going out on the randan, like--I think it's the Irish in him but, I don't know.'

Aunty Joan rested herself in her chair once more. The engine, short of its muffler, roared with menace down the right-of-way beside them toward the Malleys' house. And for a long while John stared, just stared, face down at his plate, and then glanced back up again.

'So he's electrician now?'

'It was his mother come over and told me,' Aunty Joan said. 'After he'd finished his time. I made her coffee and I thought, when's this woman ever going to leave? She went on and on about when you'd been in the same class at school together. Well, I wouldn't know anything about that.'

They ate in silence, and when Aunty Joan brought the dessert round--she'd gone and opened a whole can of Watties peaches for having with the ice cream, and with extra cream from the bottle dribbled on top--she saw he was just staring down at the telly beside him in the corner. Just blank, where they'd parked it. Off. No please or thank you's--just this sort of carry on, staring at a blank screen. Probably itching to get a look at the overseas news, always, ever since he got back. After all his time spent gallivanting around. And he didn't give two hoots about the troubles they'd had with the Boks right here, when you couldn't even talk to your own neighbour, but...he watched so carefully after someone blew up a wee shop or something in Oxford Street. Aunty Joan clattered the bowls onto the solid Formica of the tabletop and saw the peaches slide dangerously in their syrup. She remembered: 'Oxford Street!' he'd said, so happy, and pointing at the screen till she'd looked--at all those different-coloured people. Hard to believe that was England. 'Been there,' he'd said, and he went right on pointing. Golly, it looked like a Maori pa at bargain day.

'Well, there's the international track series on for you tonight,' Aunty Joan said, still standing and arranging the cutlery across the table. She was pleased at herself for working such a lot to be conciliatory. 'From Mount Smart,' she added.


Aunty Joan sat, and immediately started to cut her peaches up with the hard edge of her spoon. But she had a thought and put the spoon down.

'Those darkies, eh,' she said, 'they can't run faster than John Walker.'

That got him looking up sharpish and paying a bit of attention. But looking tired, too, awake half the night it was, probably. She'd hear him sometimes moving about in his room, restless as all. And heading for the toilet so red-faced and puffy-eyed of a morning, before almost dashing back. But what was wrong with that boy? And why did he have to be so stuck up? Never see his nibs out mowing the lawn...but, never mind. He liked to play his little games.

'Eat,' she said. 'That's the boy.'

And that was how it was, and now he shovelled down still more of the disgusting muck and thought that in the last few weeks nothing had happened, absolutely nothing, but still he couldn't get anything done. He kept lifting the spoon mechanically to his mouth, forcing down the urge to scream, the rush of panic. Why did she have to smell of wool from her tights and the socks up to her knees? And why wasn't there any mail, didn't anyone write these days? And first night back, God, there was that movie on TV about Buzz Aldrin lying around by his swimming-pool all down-hearted after the moon-shot. Return to Earth. God, I could tell him. Your time's up, that's it. God, you might as well be...just on a year ago where would I have been? Winter-holidaying in Amsterdam. He went on eating with his teeth and shoulders feeling tight, and could almost touch the soft pat of the snow hitting the tops of his shoes, the seductive squelch of each step he took through the low ridges of stiff, banked snow where it lay pushed up at the sides of the cobbled streets. Ah, he could see it, the blue-white crystals of it, heaped in little piles against the exposed roots of the elms that were set into those gently sloping paths, facing the canals. Not like 510 Albert Street, Palmerston North, the World, where the wet stuff sputtering on the roof all night was simple, boring rain. All that time out in the world, the world, the world now, and I still can't seem to get anything done...

He was labouring just to finish the bowl. He put the last of the chilly ice cream up into his mouth and chewed. What unhappy cage have I landed in now? Return to Earth. Fuck. That guy at the Palmy dole office saying: 'Have you got School C., yes? What about U.E.? And did you actually go to varsity at all?'--and I told him I'd come back with my Masters in my hot and sweaty little hand from the varsity in London, and he looks just stunned. Looks at me like I've led a privileged life and wandered into his cubicle by mistake, but it was no mistake, no mistake that anyone made, except me, I might have made a mistake...and what was he telling me? 'Oh, you'd probably like to meet my wife. She was a student in Toronto for a while.' His wife, that's all he can say for himself. Is it my fault this is the far end of nowhere? Some job he's got, stuck out here with her--out in a place like this and with his mortgage, married to his monster from outer space. Is it my fault that with some of these places...the people in them just don't count? Who wants anything to do with these nasty, narrow, fucking little people anyway? He pushed the empty bowl towards the centre of the dining-table, not wanting to do anything, consumed with his own near-hysterical hatred. And he thought how it was incredible, really, how much he really seemed to put into each of those days over there, and in the evenings he'd go out. And now nothing got done, nothing, ever.

Aunty Joan was bringing in some bread and butter, and some tea on a tray. She did it because he still looked like he needed feeding up. She went back into the kitchen to a cupboard and took out a jar of jam-preserves, checked the date on the clear seal and started to pull off the rubber band. It was a fiddly business. She thought the jar looked maybe a bit mouldy on top, but if it was scraped that'd be all right. When she returned, he was still just staring down at his empty bowl, unmoved. She thought, what isn't he happy with now? And then she thought but what a bother he was, and fussy. Aunty Joan sat and began to cut up her own little white slice of bread on her plate into even tinier pieces. She didn't even try to offer him a slice, because she knew he'd take it if he wanted it. She remembered that girl who rang for him earlier, and who said she was an old friend, from before he went away to varsity and all the big excitement of him being such a hot scone. Some floozie, that was sure. Aunty Joan reached out to the middle of the table for the mustard bottle and reminded herself that she'd nipped that in the bud smartish. Put the girl off. She stuck a finger into the bottle's neck and licked up a dab of yellow mustard, and decided it was lovely.

'Hullo,' she said, 'here's Fifi!'

Aunty Joan pushed her chair away from the table.

'Have you been out in the garden, have you?' The tortoiseshell-and-white cat commenced purring daintily up against her leg. She said, 'Look what you've brought in before your din-dins. You're all messy on the paws, you are! Yes, you are! There's a Fifi!' Aunty Joan lifted the cat a little with her strong forearm, careful of the dirt. 'Say hullo to John,' she added. 'Say hullo!'

She bent, waving one of the cat's paws in her fingers, and looked across to where the boy hadn't moved a muscle. Well, she told herself, not to worry.

'Cup of tea?'

'No. Thank you.'

'You should put some shorts on if you're too hot.'

He was getting up to go back to his room, she thought. Just like that, messy paws. Aunty Joan resisted the urge to cuddle the cat--it was his mother's animal, and she put it down again.

'What would you like to eat tomorrow?'

'I don't know.'

'Oh, you poor thing.' Aunty Joan laughed with heartless mirth. She wasn't even trying to be sincere, and he glanced at her and then looked away. She added, 'You've got no preferences?'


'Never mind. We'll manage.'

She watched him shuffle off down the passageway. She said it to herself again: we'll manage. A look of quiet achievement came into her grey eyes as she saw him go, a token, back then, that I'm not sure I can do justice to, even if I attempt to describe it; but all the harm in the world seemed to be waiting in it--and all the harm he could muster, here and now, he was hoarding for her in his heart. And the brown dust was starting to come up from the brusella with each step he took.

Copyright Ian Richards, 2008

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