Saturday short story: The Rapist, by Alice Tawhai
ReadingRoom continues its series of new New Zealand short stories every Saturday with a story by the extraordinary Alice Tawhai. Photography by Peter Black.
Conr was the only child of Matemoe Watson and Thomas Brown. It was unusual amongst the families he came into contact with to belong to a family with only one child. Right from the start, he was by himself, and he never really got the hang of mixing with others.
Thomas and Matemoe moved around a lot. Sometimes his Mother would take him down to enrol at the school, and sometimes his Dad. Which was how he came to be known by two names, Conr Watson and Conr Brown. His parents had probably never discussed his full name between them.
All the moving meant that there was no point letting his breath out and relaxing, because if he did, going away again caught him by surprise, and it was more upsetting. It was easier to put nothing in, and to leave no mark.
Thomas was beefy, and well oiled. Everything about him was very close to the skin. His hair was short, and his ears sat near to his head. His lips were thick, and his clothes were thin and light on his body. People who didn’t know him might have thought he puffed his chest out, but he didn’t need to, his rib cage was naturally that way; high and tense.
Matemoe was the type of woman to wear a dress over jeans, then a jacket with a fur rim over the top of that. Her long curly hair would tumble out into the fur, sometimes blonde with black roots, or black with bright pink or wine red spilt onto the split ends.
Conr’s parents were always drinking. And when they were, they weren’t interested in Conr. He would hang out with the children of the people they were partying with, or more often, wander round hungry on the streets, hoping that someone might throw away a packet of unfinished fish and chips, because they had too much.
Even back then, Thomas had knocked most of the teeth out of Matemoe’s head. Conr had to be careful when this happened, because if Thomas saw him looking at him, he would give Conr a blow too. As if he was afraid that Conr’s gaze was accusing him, and it might be a look of truth.
Afterwards, Thomas always went out. Matemoe would croak at Conr from the bedroom, in her husky voice. ‘Bring Mummy a drink of water, darling. Bring me a towel, Con. Some Panadol. A cigarette.’ He was always in the semi-dark in their bedroom. But Conr was used to it. He could see in that light.
He hated it when his mother tried to treat him like a slave. She wouldn’t have done that to his father.
Sometimes CYFS would send him out to the farm. Conr liked it, because it was pretty similar every day, and the difference between one day and the next might just be a truck stacked full of kamokamo; green and snake-like under the hot sun, with the bare earth that surrounded the wooden shack as red as rust.
At the farm, they didn’t try to fill their house with stuff. They weren’t always changing couches, tables, beds, trying to be better than anyone else. Every time he ever went to the farm, they always had the same old furniture. And the lino that was peeling off so that you could see the floor boards underneath never got fixed.
His Koro Charlie was on it by six o’clock every night. He shouted at Conr’s Nanny Acacia all day, but by the time that the beer had been open for an hour, his Koro just sat there and chuckled to himself, occasionally wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. Conr’s Nan pretended that his Koro wasn’t there when he started drinking. She looked right through him and out the other side. She changed into her white cotton nightie, ready for bed. And then she wanted Conr to read the Bible with her.
Unfortunately, Conr never stayed at any one school long enough to be any good at reading. And never long enough for any school to figure out that he needed help with it. It made his Nan angry. ‘How come you are six, seven, thirteen, and you can’t read properly?’ she would shout. And she began to use a ruler, a belt, and then a jug cord to teach him.
She made him try to read the English out from the Bible she gave him, so that he could learn to read for school, and then she would read the same passage out in Maori, from the Bible she was holding, so that he could absorb that too. And he would learn God’s way at the same time.
Eventually, he was always sent back to his parents, and instead of Bible thrashings, he would get ordinary hidings, and have to stay home until the marks cleared. Because schools, said Thomas, were nosy. And Conr was lucky. Lucky to have a dad. Because Thomas had never known who his dad was.
On the way home from parties, Matemoe would get all weepy, and try to stroke Conr’s face. Sometimes, she would be kissing him, and drooling spit at the same time. ‘I lush you,’ she would tell him. ‘You’re my darlink.’ He always remembered the time when Matemoe was passed out on her bed after a drinking session, and he had found her tangled in a filmy pink nightie of many layers. Because these layers were disturbed and twisted, he could see her brown nipples through the pale pink sheen. There was a bruise on her bare right shoulder; mauve and plum, and dull mustard yellow. It looked like a bird, poised to fly away. Her feet were still on the floor. She had leaned back where she sat, her legs splayed and her nightie absent from the centre and the right side of her body. He had wanted to touch her.
But then Thomas had come in, and kicked his arse down the hallway so hard that Conr thought that his father’s boot had broken his tail bone. As he tried to crawl away, he looked back to see if he was safe, and saw the smooth cheeks of Thomas’s tight brown bum, with one of Matemoe’s legs on either side of his, held up by his hands.
Conr hauled himself gratefully towards the lounge as his father thrust back and forwards. He had no room of his own, and he curled up on the couch. The thing he remembered the most when he woke up later was the seed of an admiring glow in Thomas’s eyes as he’d pushed him around so that he could aim his kick properly.
Sometimes, Conr would get home from school, and there would be no one there at all, and he would have no idea of when they might return. When he was very small, he didn’t know whether they would come back at all, but once he was older, he learned that they always did.
At first, he was scared while they were gone. And then he got to like it. The TV all to himself. Wandering around as if he owned everything.
Some boys that he was hanging with while his parents were drinking showed him how to get into other people’s houses. He couldn’t believe how easy it was. And they had food in there. And stuff that he could sell to get money to buy food that he didn’t have to cook! He lost himself in the stories of other people’s homes, imagining that they were his. He sat in their chairs, and lay down in their beds.
Soon, he didn’t need the other kids any more. He knew all the tricks, who was home and who wasn’t, and for how long, and who was asleep. He knew how to pick locks, lever catches and find keys under the doormats where people left them in case they lost their other key.
He was inside the sanctuaries of the people who had all the things that he didn’t. It was where they kept their treasures; jewellery, money, women. Conr might have been nobody that anyone noticed, but he could have anything they had. It was a short step to unzipping his pants and having a wank. Girl’s beds, women’s beds. Chintz and mirrors and bedside tables.
And one day, there she was. Brown skin tangled up in a nightie that was a saliva-like sheen of pink, her sheets pushed aside by her legs.
Men who knew Conr a little told him that it was good to live with one woman. If you were at a party, and you stuck out, you could still go home to a warm pussy. Nothing like a root in your own bed, and then you can go straight to sleep afterwards, they said. Conr preferred to put nothing in, and leave no mark.
He couldn’t remember when he left home. It seemed no different.
He moved around, sleeping on other people’s couches. He liked to stay just long enough so that they still treated him as a visitor. And when they started to want to get to know him better, or telling him what to do, he moved on. He got bored if he stayed in the same place too long. He changed jobs a lot too. It was easy to get a job as a labourer.
Even though he was screaming for it internally by the time he got inside his houses, he was careful to move around in the dark first, figuring out the lay out, and setting up safety exits. He liked to have two different ways to leave, preferably one from inside the bedroom. It was like knowing that he had a cold beer waiting for him after a hard day’s work, but not cracking into it straight away. Half the pleasure was waiting, and knowing that it was coming. Anticipation was delicious. Resistance before relief.
Strangely, even though he usually had to hold his hand over their mouths, (although not always, sometimes he could threaten them quiet,) and they lay still with shock while he thumped roughly above them; his groin crushing theirs, his chest and neck curved upwards in a show of force, this was not how he lived it in the remembering.
When he played it back, the action was sensual, and the darkness like honey. The expression in their eyes was not dull, dead or dim, but a glisten of admiring ecstasy. They had wanted it. And afterwards, they complained to the police to take the blame off themselves, and lay it on him.
He took nothing with him when he left. He remembered each woman or girl by their bedrooms, a head spin of pastel hues, lilacs and powder blues. His favourite room was pink. He remembered when he’d opened the door and seen the pink wall paper with all the tiny white dots, and a froth of white lace, all lit by the golden queen glow of the street light outside, just to the left of the letter box. Black gollywogs on the top shelf, with red shirts, and white and blue striped pants. My Little Pony underfoot. Tiny breaths in the bed.
The pink room was special, because it was his first one.
He knew that he should make a list, write them down somewhere, so that he didn’t forget any of them. The newspapers said twenty eight, but he thought there had been more than that. Maybe some of them had told no one, or blamed someone else. It was hard to remember so many rooms, and even though he practised them in his mind, it had gotten to the stage where he would not have known if he had forgotten one.
When he read the newspapers, and heard the people at work wonder who it was, and to say aloud that he must be pretty clever to keep getting away with it, it made him hard. No one ever guessed that it was him. He was undercover. A shadow. Outwitting people. Him against the world.
Sometimes, he started feeling empty, as if there was a hollow pit under his chest that needed to be filled. And he knew it was time to go out again. He loved the sense of release that came with cuming inside a woman. He felt like a Viking conqueror. He was in control. He ruled the world. He was the man!
He liked the ones who were a bit younger, about twelve, because they were tighter, but he didn’t really mind. Variety was good. Occasionally, he saw one that he kept thinking about, and he would follow her home to see where she lived. It was as if they didn’t see him, sticking close to the ground, with his cap pulled down over his eyes.
Sometimes he just went inside a house because he liked the washing he saw on the line. Schools were good places to hunt, and to consider which ones to choose, because he got to see how they were when they interacted with their friends. He preferred them shy, because they were less likely to cause him any trouble. It was a movable feast. The girl with the soft black frizzy hair, who had worn the jersey with big squares of black, white and grey. The one with the pale blue eyes and brown skin. The woman with the high cheek bones and dyed hair, who reminded him of Matemoe.
One woman tried to spoil things for him. Even though she was much younger, she wore a white cotton nightie like his Nan had used to, which already made him feel uneasy. And her eyes weren’t scared or shocked, they were angry. Grabbing her Bible from her bedside table, she thrust it between herself and him. ‘We will pray together,’ she insisted. His pleasure had evaporated, and he went soft. He turned and ran for the bedroom door, and then out the front door, which he carelessly left open.
It didn’t put Conr off. It made him feel so sick, trying to get the memory out of his brain, that instead of giving up and losing his taste for it, he found that he needed to do another one straight away. He ached for another dim, pink room, with a froth of lace. He wanted to be back where he’d been before.
He strolled past a school, and no one noticed him. It was a pink school, and that was good, worn by the sun. In the gardens, against the classroom walls, were giant yellow sunflowers with dark centres, happy in the never endingness of summer. As he walked down the street, a police car flashed past him, screaming sirens and strobing red and blue lights. And in a darkened pink room inside his head, reflected red and blue light bounced off the walls. He turned for home. This time.
Conr wasn’t there when the police went to visit his dad, but he heard about it blow by blow from Matemoe. ‘Fuck off,’ his father had said. ‘I’m not a rapist!’ But they had taken swabs from the inside of his cheek, and carried off his plum coloured jocks in a clear plastic bag. ‘Fucking perverts,’ Thomas had said. Matemoe was crying on the phone.
Six weeks later, Thomas’s DNA had linked him to three rapes in Whanganui, way back around the time that Conr was born, and they took Thomas away.
Eventually, the police list led them to Conr. They were interested in him, because his father’s DNA showed that the rapist was a close relative. They had a warrant for his arrest. ‘Connor Brown?’ they said, when he opened the door at his cousin’s house, because he was the only one home.
‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m Conr Watson.’
‘Do you have ID to prove that?’ said the female police officer. Conr showed them his licence, and they left.
He knew they’d be back. Another time, another house.
Alice Tawhai is the pen-name of the author of three collections of short stories, Festival of Miracles (2005),Luminous (2007), and Dark Jelly (2011). She avoids photography, biography, and all forms of personal advertisement.
Next week’s short story: In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say A Lot by Greville Texidor