ReadingRoom

Saturday short story: Dirt, by Elizabeth Morton (for Peter Ellis)

A short story by Auckland writer Elizabeth Morton dedicated to Peter Ellis, who died this week while awaiting the Supreme Court to rule on his appeal for a miscarriage of justice in the Christchurch creche case.

For Peter Ellis (1958-2019)

The washing line was heavy with the creatures of the mind. I was nine. Animals with horns and forked tongues licked at the elastic waistbands of hanging garments. My night gown slapped the birds from the sky. The sheets smelled of honeysuckle and summer. They smelled like the last best thing, like something beautiful repeating on itself. It was 1996. We were happy and galloping wild and rough.

We were truants and troubadours. We had kazoos and chatter-rings. We stood at the bottom of the school field, flipping the bird to the teenagers walking to college. We made faces at fat mothers and men with limps and girls with harelips. My brother wolf-whistled and threw sticks at parked cars. We were a tag team of scallywags. When the teacher called us back to detention we would sing scallywag songs. We came home stinking of chalk and industrial carpet and lunchboxed sandwiches. Did you do good today, our mother would say. And yes we did, we’d chime, yes we did.

My brother and I sat on the hillock of the spare section, watching the yellow earthmovers stretch their stub necks. When the builders and surveyors packed in for the night, we gathered our neighbour clan and pulled ourselves up into the cabs of bulldozers and trenchers. Up up up, us boys would say. And we would sit before the knobs and dials like blokes, trying to stink of smoke and sweat and mince and cheese. Bro, one of us would start. I’m making mountains out of molehills. And another of us would say Farrr out, and another would say You’re a dirty rascal – I’m the king of the castle. And yes I was; I was dirt. Good dirt.

It was the summer they subdivided the farm in our street. The spare section was lopped into ten small lots. We dug holes to China, at night, with torches and thermoses of Milo, and in the morning the contractors would appear again, plugging our tunnels and pouring cement where our foxholes had dimpled the turf. We dipped our fingers in the wet cement when the last of them had hoofed off, and wrote pirate words and drew cocks and balls and tits and Superman insignia.

My brother had grey eyes that made the world around him look more blue. Bro, I said. Bro, remember that time we found a pigeon in the concrete. And my brother nodded so quickly it might have been a tic. And remember, I’d say, that time we found the underwear in the scaffolding.

We found the pigeon in the concrete, half-buried, talons thick with cement. We made a scrum, huddled above it. Touch it! Do it! sang the boys. Poke it with a stick! We pulled a twig from a dogwood tree and touched the pigeon’s trembling head. Pigeon, my brother said. The struggle is real! The pigeon swivelled its head. It tried to pull its wing from the fixed cement, setting its tertial feathers at a sickening angle. Save it, said one boy. Let’s dig it out. And my brother eyed him greyly. We should kill it, he said, thrice beating his hands on his skinny chest. And a chorus of us boys howled and gnashed our teeth.

Kids, somebody said. Leave it. And we held our hands over our brows and looked up. It was old Mister Balloon.

Mister Balloon watched us watch him. Scram!, he said. Scram! And we scrammed fast as dogs.

*

We did not know the dead girl, but we’d talked to her nonetheless. She was legs and boobs and cropped black hair. We’d wolf-whistled and cat-called our best nine-year-old ways. She was a trespasser. She kicked a workman’s pipe-wrench into our rectangle. She drew a smile in the dust with the nose of her shoe. Then she sat on the outside scaffolding, straddling the aluminium tubing in her short shorts. Girl, we said. You’re on our land! And the girl just turned and grinned like a reptile.

We saw the dead girl twice before she disappeared; the second time she had a skateboard, and air-walked with the best of them. She didn’t talk. She launched off a clay hillock and bailed, but reclaimed the deck with the poise of a gymnast. Us boys hooted. Whoop whoop, we said. The girl kicked the board away, then slung it over her shoulder. She walked from the subdivision along the promenade. She turned back, a two-finger salute and a smile. We clapped. The dead girl walked out of our lives like it was the end of a movie. The credits came down, and she got smaller, smaller. Disappeared.

We grew taller and taller and soon we were 30, with office jobs and muted relationships, tax rebates, and the kind of fantasies you conjure when you’ve spent too long embroiled in social conservatism and vanilla sex. We had bad teeth and halitosis, low libidos and good cars. We liked beer. We liked beer a lot. We were broken-in horses, domesticated mutts. We were pussy-whipped and temperate. We joked only during our PowerPoint presentations, and by the watercoolers after work. When we roleplayed with our couples’ counsellors, we kept our faces straight. My brother forgot gunslinging and seafaring and the dirt from which we were born. But we both remembered the dead girl and old Mister Balloon.

We were 30 when we heard old Mister Balloon had carked it. The parole board had released him six months prior, to die in the wide world like a real person. We saw him on the telly – a spectacled, ponytailed, waif of a man. Mr Balloon walked out of the custodial facility, flanked by intersectional feminists wearing sandwich boards, yapping about justice for the dead girl. Mister Balloon had barked back, in the early days. I am innocent, he’d said. And in the early days, us kids said yeah right.

When the police rolled up at the subdivision we dared each other to key the patrol car. We keyed Mister Balloon’s initials. We keyed them good.

Mister Balloon lived in a flat above the green grocer’s store with a grungy dog called Casper. Mister Balloon was then 50-odd. He smoked a pipe he’d fashioned himself, from the pods of a willow tree. He’d been an out-the-back butcher in the 1970s, cutting rib cartilage, and piping sausages and manufacturing the most intense black pudding his small country had ever seen. That Mister Balloon is a dag, people would say. That Mister Balloon in his white gumboots and denim overalls is the kind of spook only a mother could love. And Mister Balloon must have felt something of a frost in the small community, where boys ran wild like beasts, and fathers and mothers beat the jungle drums up and down the suburb.

When the police came by the subdivision, we told them everything about old Mister Balloon.

He was all in black, my brother said, and I said: and he has psychopathic eyebrows, and my brother said He sort of lurks.

The policemen said, did you see the girl? And my brother fixed me firmly with his grey lupine eyeballs. We saw the girl, I said. Yeah, said my brother. Sure, we saw her.

Old Mister Balloon was camp; that’s what Mrs Griggs, up the lane, said, and that’s what we realised all those years later, the two of us, talking by the photocopier over after-work drinks. Mister Balloon had spoken with an affected twang, and he’d moved like a swamp- hen. We sat in our work shirts and ties, and we thought about dirt and 1996, the neighbour-clan, and the hole, and the dead girl. That was one heck of a summer, I said. It really was, my brother mouthed, like he couldn’t make the words.

Mister Balloon made it into our stories. Mister Balloon was a creep. He had too much oxygen as a child, or not enough. He was a bunny-boiler, with kids tethered to a pool table in his basement. He watched nature documentaries. Sicko. He ate Nutella straight from the jar. The dead girl. Mister Balloon incinerated her in his backyard drum. Us boys spat into the dust at that.

The pigs took us to the station, where we sat in reception, dog-earing magazines and whistling and jiggling our legs. A woman with tight hair shook our small callused hands and led us into an interview room, with a sand-tray and innumerable plastic figurines. She said choose a figurine to represent your feelings. She said take this doll and tell me where it hurts. She said I am not judging you. She said you can terminate the session when you wish. And my brother rolled his eyes, while I put the figurine representing the dead girl face down in a Ninja Turtle’s lap. Is it Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo or Raphael? said the woman, but I just laughed and slapped the side of the chair. It’s old Mister Balloon, said my brother, and it was just a joke, just a joke.

We grew blunter and blunter, and then we were 30. We buttoned our shirts all the way up, and shaved the morning stubble, plucked the worst of our eyebrows. Mister Balloon was raped three times while we were cleaning our teeth and microwaving cereals. Mister Balloon was declined parole twice, on the basis that he didn’t concede the crime. I’m innocent, he’d said, and we did and didn’t believe him.

Did he touch you? said the interviewer, and I said here and here and here. And she said and here and here? And I said yeah. There and there.

*

Mister Balloon was released the day we had an office party. The neighbour clan assembled in the firm carpark, holding paper cups of beer and vodka jellies. The receptionist blu-tacked faux mistletoe to the entrance pelmet. My brother folded an origami fortune-teller out of watermarked card. He leaned over the miniature refrigerator with a biro, filling in the blanks with small fates. He inserted his fingers and approached the legal executive. Which box do you choose? he said. She sniffed her drink, then tapped one of the sections. Here? he said, and she said here and here. And he opened the folds.

You’re fucked said the first. You’re fucked said the second.

1996, and we were the gunpowder, pensive. We were hand grenades flung down suburban manholes. Everything was coming to its sweet end. We were nine, and we knew 10 would be waiting behind the burger joint on a hot night.

Remember the pigeon? I said, and it had been years, but my brother was still and sullen. Mister Balloon had it coming, he said, cracking his knuckles two by two. When the townhouses went up, and the driveways were laid, we were casually exiled from subdivision to creekbed. We filched from the builders’ toolkits. We had drill bits and claw hammers, measuring tapes and mole grips. We Chinese-whispered about skater girls and Mister Balloon. Our play continued, with a newfangled violence. We flogged the agapanthus with our bush-whackers. We dipped snails in vinegar. But we were bored of our hardness.

The police questioned Mister Balloon on a Sunday. I know because us kids had Sunday School at the local Baptist. We sat against the chipboard back wall of the church, arms and legs crossed, braced for something transcendental that never arrived. Members of the pastoral council took turns telling us about venial sin and mortal sin and the way God knows which is which, and there was a colouring page for that too, with twisted torsos and God pointing a finger. Do you think God knows the C word? I asked my brother. And my brother said Sure, for special occasions. And I said yeah, probably yeah.

The dead girl had a family. Her mother was on the Holmes show, in a mustard cardigan, her palms sweating on the newsroom counter. There there, said Mister Holmes, tapping her sleeve. The mother said Mandy, we just want you home. Us boys sat close to the television set. We sat close to see her lip quiver, her matt foundation wrinkle in the studio light. Our mother said You’ll get square eyes, you know and we shuffled back on our skinny bottoms. We clambered onto beanbags, and bit the skin around our thumb nails. Holmes said If you know anything about Mandy’s disappearance phone Crime Stoppers. My brother prised open the beanbag, just a little, so that he could grab a handful of polystyrene beans. He crunched one between his front teeth, and threw the rest at the moggy who flicked her tail, vexed. Mister Balloon, my brother whispered, spitting the crushed polystyrene into his lap. And I said Yes. Mister Balloon.

We grew up and up. We played adult games. We dealt in Cards against Humanity, we played chilli roulette and used Rock Paper Scissors to assign client files. We lost our wolf schnozzles. Olfaction dulled to white-noise, revealing itself in infrequent moments of nostalgia: honeysuckle in summer’s heat, the septic smell haloing holiday homes, sawdust at building sites. With each whiff, a gauze of homesickness. We no longer smelled fear and disgust and anticipation. We were dumb and insensible. But we knew habeas corpus and mens rea and subpoena ad testificandum. We knew conditions of parole and Miranda Rights and how to manipulate a juror, how to gas-light a witness. We knew Mister Balloon had six months to rehabilitate, six months to live, once he was hurled back into a world that he expressly forgave. We did not forgive.

The afternoon Mister Balloon was arrested, our mother bought us Magnum popsicles. We went to the dairy and she said Any one you want. And we both chose triple chocolate because it seemed the most bang-for-your-buck. She said well done boys and purred into our ears, her eyelashes tickling our hot cheeks. The neighbour clan chirruped and crowed and threw water balloons at Mister Balloon’s vacant flat until the green grocer shooed them off. The adults yakked about how they’d always had an inkling, and how you have to go with your gut instincts, how they smelled perversion on his breath. Each time our mother petted our sandy heads something eroded in us – a softness we would later call ‘remorse’. We were born dirt, and dirt followed us like a lost dog. At 30 we were scrubbing, scrubbing, but the dirt was filaments in our flesh, plaques in our fatty organs. Dirt had passed the blood-brain barrier. Dirt was in our sleep and on our tongues. And the popsicles tasted like guilt.

Next week's short story is by Charlotte Grimshaw.

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