ReadingRoom

Short story: Habitat, by Rebecca Styles

"If it wasn’t for the blood stains on his jeans and the road they could pretend it hadn’t happened": a children's birthday in Wellington is the setting for a short story by Rebecca Styles.

“Oh, Jesus,” says Tom as he tears off down the driveway. Suzie runs after him — there’s a young man lying in the foetal position bleeding on the road.  Two women are standing over him. One of them is on her phone to emergency services — a name gurney swings around her neck as she walks back and forth along the road talking to the operator. 

“We’re at 89 Fern Street…he’s conscious, moving…okay, okay.”  She goes back to the injured man and crouches down beside him, “they’re on their way.” 

Tom moves to the injured man and winces when he looks at his face but then places a hand on his shoulder.

“Y’right mate, what’s your name?” 

He doesn’t reply.

“We need something to stop the blood.”

The injured man sits up and takes his white hoodie off, which is covered in blood, and holds it against his nose. 

Tom stands on the road behind the man and directs a car around him. 

The other woman at the scene is standing at the man’s side.  She turns to Tom.

“The driver pulled the guy out of a small blue car and started punching him, kicking him in the face.  I’ve got the registration.”  In her hand she holds a folded piece of refill paper.  “The other guy in the car tried to stop the driver, was pulling him away, kept saying, come on, let him go, we gotta get outta here.” 

The strands of the woman’s shoulder length hair clump together and stick out.  She’s got no shoes on. Her toenails are pink.

Suzie stands to the side.  She doesn’t want to see the young man’s kicked-in face, and is surprised at the bright red of the blood stains on the road, how pulpy they are.  She sees a pair of black canvas shoes on the footpath.  The rubber toe wet with blood, laces still tied.  

The balloons that Tom tied to the letterbox this morning for Lily’s party knock against each other in the northerly. The cake sits on the kitchen table. Suzie worries that the cat might jump up knock a figurine off it or lick the icing.

Tom directs traffic, goes back to the man, and then watches for cars.

The injured man slowly stands up.  As he does, Suzie sees that a black eye has already formed on his face. 

“Come on mate, lie down, lie down again. The ambulance will be here soon,” Tom says.

The man removes the hoodie from his face and a thin stream of blood flows from his nose onto the road.  He brings the sweatshirt back to his nose, his hands held together as if in prayer.  He nods his head up and down, thanking the women and Tom. 

They hear the siren of the ambulance. The flickering red lights turn into their street and the women put their hands up to indicate where the emergency is. The sirens go off but the lights still flash. The female ambulance officer talks to the man.

“What’s your name?”  When he doesn’t say, she says, “what can I call you?”

He doesn’t reply.

The ambulance officer calls to her colleague, “can you set-up out the back,” while she guides the man to the ambulance.

Tom looks at the blood on his hands, and then follows the other women to the back of the ambulance where they are given antiseptic wipes. 

“You were so good.” Suzie reaches out her right hand and rests it on Tom’s knee while he’s driving.

“What time are the kids arriving?” he asks.

“In about half n’ hour.”

“You know, we should think about moving,” Tom says. He looks right to left, and right again before crossing the intersection by the Italian food warehouse.

“Move? Why? Where?”

“Somewhere safer, somewhere where a kid isn’t going to get his head kicked-in outside our gate.”

“That could happen anywhere.”

“Really?  It wouldn’t happen in Melrose, or Seatoun or Khandallah.  And there’s been a few dodgy things lately.  What about the milk bottle filled with piss in our mailbox?  And the water bottle hash pipe in the gutter?”

“I don’t know, I mean, we’ll have to think this through. You’ll still want to be close to Lily’s place.”

“I can pick up some extra work, a few more cases, maybe get back into the Crown stuff.  We could get a bigger mortgage.”

“I think you’re over-reacting.”

“I don’t want Lily seeing that kind of stuff, not outside her home.”

Suzie has always liked living in the area.  It’s a bit rough around the edges but she’s never felt threatened before.

“How about we just enjoy Lily’s party, and we’ll talk about this later?”

Tom shoots up to the house to collect Lily. “What’s that on your leg, Daddy?”  Lily asks as they walk back up the driveway, pointing to the blood on Tom’s jeans.

He looks down at his trousers. “Argh an attack of the tomato sauce bottle,” he says as he brings his hands up like claws, crouches down and pounces on Lily, bringing her in for a hug.  “Just you wait and see what Suzie has made for you.” She giggles and runs up driveway.

Suzie sees him clench his jaw.  She waits for him to meet her eyes, but he doesn’t. 

If it wasn’t for the blood stains on his jeans and the road they could pretend it hadn’t happened.

Lily brings her hands up to the sides of her face and squeals when she sees the cake, which makes Suzie jump.

She smiles at Lily and offers to take her photo beside it. Lily takes her hands away from her face and leans towards the cake.

The Sylvanian creatures are a little wobbly on the cake. She’s worried that Lily will accidentally knock the table and bump them off their habitat.  They are squirrels. The father wears yellow overalls and the mother and daughter wear matching yellow pinafore dresses. Suzie doesn’t understand what Lily sees in the figures, or in the rest of her woodland creatures. Their body parts don’t move, and Lily can’t change their clothes like she does with her Barbie. The creatures all have sensible jobs, they are lawyers or teachers, or run their own shops. They are mums and dads, brothers and sisters. 

Andrea walks into the house followed by Lily’s friends. She looks at the Sylvanian Family standing on coconut grass beside a tree made out of a Flake chocolate bar and green fondant leaves.

“You’ve gone to a lot of trouble.” 

Lily is dragging out the present proceedings, enjoying the attention.  Suzie leaves them to it. As she sets out the rest of the party food she sees the man’s body lying in the middle of the road, the blood congealing around the stone chips of the asphalt, and how the antiseptic wipe that Tom cleaned his hands with turned pink.  

As she pushes the plunger down into the coffee pot she notices that her hand is shaking. 

“Can I help?”  Andrea has come into the kitchen. She’s wearing skinny jeans with a white shirt. She always looks crisp and clean whereas Suzie’s usually in an apron dusted with flour. Today, however, she's wearing jeans with an over-sized jumper that has a horse’s head on it.

“Oh, giddy-up,” Tom had said, putting his fists together as if he were holding reins, when she’d put it on this morning.

“I’m going with the Sylvanian Family theme of the party,” she’d said.

Tom had smiled, and then galloped up the hallway, blowing air out of his nostrils and clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

“No, thanks, it’s all under control,” she says now to Andrea who smiles and collects the coffee pot off the bench.

They sing Happy Birthday. The candle flames glow on Lily’s face. One of the girls sings with a high-pitched voice which grates on Suzie’s nerves. Tom is poised with his phone at the opposite end of the table to Lily, who looks right at him when she’s about to blow out the candles.

“Who wants cake?”  Suzie is holding the knife. She clutches it tightly to steady her hand.

“Yes, please!” the girls chorus.

“Birthday girl first.”

She cuts slices of cake, avoiding the squirrels and their tree. She plates the slices and hands them around the table. The smell of chocolate combined with the icing is heady. 

She slices up to the feet of the squirrels. She doesn’t really want to have to take them off the cake. She looks up and sees that everyone has a piece, so she stops slicing, puts the knife down. 

The girls are quiet. 

She looks at the squirrels on top of the cake, at their smiles and open arms.

Next week's short story is from a newly published collection by the great Southland writer Dan Davin.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners