Memory’s a funny thing. Mostly we remember what we want to remember … the good things, the magic. Looking back at my Auckland childhood it’s always summer, every face is smiling, and Mum’s just taken another batch of muffins from the stove.
But I also remember the abandoned villa, its broken windows, the tumbled chimney and sagging roof, the darkly inviting, spider-web cave of its gaping door. To me it seemed like a sad and lonely old lady, hunched in the shadows, well back from prying eyes, near the corner where quiet Tumatawarea Street edges into the never-ending traffic of Parnell Road.
Someone loved her once. It showed in the way every inch of the wide veranda was decorated with ornate fretwork. And in the fancy brackets on the bay gables, the scrolled window surrounds, the no-expense-spared lead lights. But her time had gone. Nobody valued such things in those thrifty, sensible post-war years. By the time I’d reached eight or nine, the villa was well and truly deserted. Paint flaked, green and white, onto the mossy earth. Shattered glass lay everywhere, inside and out. Creepers fingered through knots in the warped woodwork. Eventually, the front door dropped on its hinges to lean crazily ajar.
It wasn’t long before somebody decided the place was haunted. The rumours soon spread. Being empty, it was full of odd creaks and eerie groans. On dark nights a lonely wind whistled along the eaves. Thin branches of choked lemon trees clawed helplessly against the roof. Scrawny cats gathered to screech and howl into the moonlight like tormented souls. From time to time, bits of timber fell into the encroaching shrubs with dull, echoing thumps. All the usual scary things became exaggerated and embroidered over the long June mid-winter evenings.
But as time went on the villa began to nurture even better stories. Strange lights were seen. Shapes moved behind curtains that no longer hung at the windows. Disembodied shadows passed from verandah to porch. Someone knew someone who’d heard voices, laughter, tramping feet, and what sounded like the soft squeal of a swing in motion. Once or twice neighbours swore they’d heard the slash of scythes clearing undergrowth, the thud of axes and the metallic whine of busy saws. To top it all, the friend of a friend claimed to have heard, felt, and even smelled the crackle and hiss of a barbecue.
Of course nobody believed any of it … but we proved ourselves by cutting through the densely overgrown garden. Later, as the primitive savagery of early teenage rites absorbed us, the villa became a sort of initiation ground.
“Dare you to knock at the door, and stand there.”
“Dare you to go in, right in.”
“Dare you to spend the night there … in the dark … without a torch.”
“Dare you to …”
One stormy night, the roof lifted. After that the villa collapsed. Since we were now forbidden to go anywhere near the place, we pretended to lose interest. The following summer a passer-by flicked a cigarette butt into its tinder dry depths. The building went up with a whoosh that brought half the neighbourhood running. Trees and bushes caught, crackling and hissing, sending showers of scarlet sparks miles up into the sky. As the hoses played on the blaze, clouds of choking yellow smoke billowed upwards, shutting out the curious gaze of a perfectly round full moon. We stood barefoot on our still-warm paths, gazing upwards as soft feathers of ash fell for what seemed like hours, covering gardens and cars, clinging to lines full of damp over-night washing.
In the grey light of early morning, only a soggy black mess remained. At least, some sensible soul commented, there was nothing left to be haunted.
My family moved out of the area shortly afterwards. Soon I left school, started work, and life began to open up. Childhood friends faded away. New ones arrived.
Then Mac and Lizzie made the oldest mistake in the book and had to get married fast. We’d worked together for a couple of years and I loved them both – in very different ways. Mac and I had become like brothers. As for Lizzie, well … I wished them happiness and tried not to mind. They searched high and low for a home, but for the money Mac earned there was nothing. Weeks passed. Lizzie grew bigger. Mac grew more desperate.
“Don’t worry,” I said, suffering with him. “Something’ll turn up. It always does.”
Occasionally, frustration got the better of Mac. He’d stride up and down the office, running his fingers through his mop of red hair, thinking aloud. “It’s not as if I’m asking for much,” he’d mutter. “Nothing fancy – just a little place we can call our own. I tell you, I’d do anything, anything …”
The rest of us kept quiet. The situation seemed hopeless.
But then something did turn up. One Monday morning Mack came in with such a grin pasted over his freckles that I knew their luck had changed.
“Where?” I whispered the minute old Docherty’s back was turned.
“Tumatawarea Street,” he whispered back, “off Parnell Road. You know it?”
“Yeh – used to live there.”
I was surprised. By then the whole area had changed, become very different from the free and easy, happy-go-lucky one of my childhood. It was very up-and-coming; getting expensive, too. We’d moved away precisely because the rents rocketed. Still, we all were glad for him. But over the next few weeks, no matter how hard any of us fished for an invitation, none were forthcoming. In the end I cornered Mac into giving me the number. Nothing was going to stop me visiting them in their new home. We were friends, after all was said and done. Mac didn’t give it willingly, though. And every time I pressed him for precise directions, a vacant sort of expression crept over his features, making him look almost stupid. He didn’t show up for work the rest of the week.
On Sunday morning I picked a huge bunch of Mom’s prized flowers whilst she was safely at church. Straight after dinner I spruced myself up and set off.
It was a longer walk than I’d realised, and pretty warm. By the beginning of Tumatawarea Street sweat was pouring off me. I stood for a while, cooling off and getting my bearings. Everything looked familiar, but smarter, and smaller, like it always does when you go back to childhood places.
After a few minutes I walked slowly along until I reached the junction with Parnell Road. Wasn’t far, but the road itself was long. My scrap of paper said number seven, but blowed if I could find it. The numbers seemed to start at fifteen. So I looked for a side passage, reckoning that there must be must be a small group of houses tucked behind, maybe built on a divided section. Backwards and forwards I went, getting more perplexed by the minute. Nothing.
Oh, I asked. Over and over again, I asked. Nobody knew of any number seven in Tumatawarea Street. There was only the Tasman Motel stretching right up to the smart white walls of number fifteen.
Thinking I must have written down the wrong number, I tried describing Mac. Being over six feet tall and with flaming red hair, he wasn’t a fellow whose appearance you’d forget in a hurry. Didn’t get anywhere with that, either. In the end, people started giving me such funny looks that there was nothing left to do but walk right back to the beginning, sit on the Motel wall, and think.
Either I’d got the address completely wrong, or Mac was having me on. Perhaps his new place was so rough he didn’t want us to see it. Or was it all a blind? Perhaps he and Lizzie had got so fed up with drawing a blank here they’d slipped off somewhere else where there was more of a fighting chance.
Whichever it was, I felt a complete fool. Hurt, too.
The flowers had wilted by now. Shoving them beneath a nearby bush, I ran my finger round the too-tight Sunday collar, loosening my tie while scowling down at the dust-covered shoes that took half the morning to polish. Enough was enough. It was back home for me.
Suddenly, right behind me, Mac burst out laughing. I leapt to my feet and spun round, grinning like an idiot. And felt my jaw drop. There was no one there. I heard the dull thump of an axe against green wood. I heard the blade slip. I heard Mac draw in his breath and curse softly. The baking sun blistered the back of my neck. Slow footsteps approached. Glasses clinked on a tin tray. I ran my tongue over parched lips at the frothy gurgle of beer being poured hardly an arm’s length away. There was a deep sigh. I couldn’t be sure whether it was Mac’s, or mine; of contentment, or regret. This way and that I turned, looking in every direction, but there was nothing but the stretch of car park. Close my eyes and each unseen sound became as clear, as real, as the incessant chirr of cicadas on the nearby kaikawaka trees, the occasional drone of a passing car. I swear I even heard Mac’s silly great, splay-footed mongrel approach, the growl, deep in his throat, change to a whine and a slobbering snuffle as he recognised me. And the familiar sound of Lizzie’s throaty giggle. But were those sounds in front of me? Behind? Above? Below? Within? The footsteps retreated. Further away, plates rattled. Now I could smell chocolate cake baking. Still, without seeing anything.
It was only then that I remembered the old villa that once stood on the land beneath this very car park. I’d crumpled the scrap of paper, with its non-existent address, into a tiny ball. It slipped through my fingers and bounced gently along the sidewalk. Before I could catch it, a small breeze picked it up, tossed it in the air, spinning it round until it finally disappeared from sight. As for me, I backed slowly away until I reached Parnell Road, where the sounds were lost in the swell of evening traffic returning from a day at the beach.
None of us ever saw Mac or Lizzie again. And I’ve never said anything.
From time to time over the years I’ve screwed up the courage to go back. Always on my own, of course – I mean, it’s not the sort of thing you’d want to talk about.
Like any other family, they’re not always around. But sometimes, when the traffic dies down, or on a fine summer evening, when the air is warm and still, I’ve heard them again. And the funny thing is they’ve changed too. That autumn, I heard a furious baby practically yelling its head off. As time went by, the family grew. Children laughed and squabbled and cried. A succession of dogs barked. Sometimes a mower whirrs over lawns. Doors slam. Sprinklers play. Balls bounce along paths. Mac’s voice has deepened. He’s better spoken now, and sounds more serious than when I knew him. He must have gone up in the world. My sweet Lizzie’s laugh is as contagious as ever.
I don’t go so often now. Tell the truth, they make me feel lonely … and envious.
Eliza Granville has had several novels published and her work can be found in many magazines and anthologies. She lives in the West of England with three Persian cats, her own personal bodyguard and an overactive imagination. She is a PhD student at a Celtic university.
Story © 2011, Eliza Granville
Photo © 2018, Alison Stedman