ReadingRoom

Short story: The Tearooms, by Mandy McMullin

"A resident of the boarding house disappeared the same day Mrs Bethany’s body was discovered": provincial gothic, with astrology, by Auckland writer Mandy McMullin.

I moved into the tearooms the day I turned sixteen, 23 December 2006. The same day I met Garth. It was Saturday, a lucky day for Capricorns, which is why I decided to go home with him.

I was standing on the side of the road near Thames when his truck pulled up. A skinny guy in his twenties with thick brown hair tied back a pony tail and bad skin. He said he wasn’t supposed to pick up hitchhikers, the owner of the truck didn’t allow it but I could sit in the back with the tyres. When I told him I got carsick he asked if I had any money and said I could get in the front if I paid for takeaways and gave him $20 for gas. I didn’t know then that Garth was an Aries, we were never going to be compatible.

Garth asked lots of questions like how old was I? Where was I going? Like all Capricorns I value my privacy so I thought carefully before telling him that I came from Matamata, that I was heading for a commune on the Moehau and that it was my birthday, although I said I was eighteen. I didn’t mention what happened between me and my stepbrother, because Gene, who was Pisces, was younger than me and my father, who was deputy head at our high school, said if word got out he would lose his job. My father didn’t understand the attraction between Capricorn and Pisces.

Garth suggested the old tearooms in Coromandel where he was living, he said the place was a bit of a mess but there was plenty of room. I could stay on three conditions; he was the boss seeing as he found it, I paid him $50 a week, cash, and stayed out of sight. He said the owner had put a trespass order on the place so we could be arrested if we were caught living there. He had no idea how long the arrangement would last because the tearooms were going to be demolished to make way for holiday appartments.

Garth dropped me on the edge of town and told me to wait while he took the truck back to the tyre shop. By the time he returned I had a bed, a single mattress covered in yellow stains and red rosebuds which I’d found in a pile on the side of the road with a sign that said FREE STUFF. Garth helped me drag the mattress over a wire fence at the back of the gas station, across a paddock and in through the back door of the tearooms. We went back later for a plastic chair, three china mugs and a bucket. We waited for the people in the house to pull their curtains, even though the stuff was free, so they wouldn’t see where we were taking it.  

I chose the room closest to the back door, which turned out to be the only room with a locking window and no holes in the ceiling. It had wallpaper with scenes of poodles and the Eiffel tower, and a view of an enormous tree in the backyard. I moved my mattress near the window so I could lie in bed and watch the tree. Capricorns are great watchers and listeners. I noticed when the wind blew it waved to me and whistled to get my attention.

Garth had the big room facing the verandah with the line of windows with all their glass missing. He’d swept the broken glass into the hole where the fireplace had been and slept on a sofa with the springs sticking out in a corner away from the street lights beside all his things in two cardboard boxes. One night, Garth asked me into his room. As usual when he’d been drinking he was in a talkative mood, he even patted the sofa and said I could sit next to him but I chose the floor. He told me he’d been in that room with his mother when he was nine. He pointed to the window where they’d sat, him sucking Fanta through a straw while his mother watched. He said it was only after she died of cancer he realised she had taken him for a final treat. That was the only time he ever invited me into his room or mentioned his family, and he never asked about mine, which was fine with me.

Garth knew a lot about the history. He said before it was a tearooms, it was a boarding house. It had started out as a hotel in the gold rush, which is why it was close to the wharves, because that was the best part of town before the main road went in. A local group wanted to save it because it was so historic but he thought it was stupid idea, the place was trashed.

The tearooms was in a bad state, no doubt about it. All the light switches were missing, broken pieces of plaster and wires hung from the ceiling. One corner of the laundry had been smashed in and the taps ripped out. Garth pulled the copper pipes out of the walls because he said copper was valuable and if he didn’t someone else would. The front door was nailed shut but that suited us, because it kept people out and until the fence was built, we only used the back entrance onto the paddock.

Capricorns are loners, at their best loyal and intelligent, at worst, cautious and pessimistic. I had to use all these qualities with Garth. The first time he came into my room, I didn’t say anything but when he wanted to do it again the next morning I told him he had to give me a rent reduction. I told him never underestimate a Capricorn, we are very practical and good business people.

Garth never had any money. He couldn’t get the dole without a name and address. "Off the grid and proud of it" was how he described himself. So he had to go out to work, always odd jobs that paid cash, stacking tyres, scraping barnacles, picking up hay and painting over rust. He drank pretty much everything as soon as he earned it so I never told him about my allowance.

I liked it when Garth was out. I imagined the tearooms before they were trashed, little tables loaded with china cups and saucers, embroidered tablecloths, glass vases of dried flowers, silver teaspoons and nice food, sausage rolls, doughnuts, pies and ice cream. I got hungry thinking about it.

Some days I went into town. I would wonder around listening to conversations in shops, buy food and withdraw cash which I took home and hid in the tree where Garth wouldn’t find it. I always walked past the tearooms to check for any sign of us from the street.

One day I went into the library where there was a display of old newspaper clippings in a glass case in the foyer. When I saw a photo labelled Bethany’s Boarding House 1913, I knew straightaway it was the tearooms.  A group of men with hats and beards and watches stood on the verandah. Even without colour you could see the place was nice. To one side was a small, tidy-looking woman about my size, wearing a long dress with lace around the collar and wrists. A black and white dog lay at her feet. Close up I could see her hair was pinned back showing earrings and a necklace, she was maybe the same age as my stepmother only kind-looking. Sticking up above the roof behind her, was the tree.  

I read the story without stopping. This was Mrs Bethany, the landlady who was found hanging from the macrocarpa tree in the backyard. The police said it was suicide even though all her jewellery was missing. Rumours circulated about a local man, Mr Frizzell, a resident of the boarding house, who disappeared the same day Mrs Bethany’s body was discovered. Several residents claimed he had a grudge against Mrs Bethany because she’d spurned his advances. Mr Frizzell was known to the Police. He was seen in Colville, then Port Charles. He was never bought in for questioning.

At the bottom, it said in tiny writing Coromandel Heritage, For more information contact S. Andrews c/o Library.

I lay on my bed watching the tree which I now knew was a macrocarpa, imagining Mrs Bethany hanging amongst the branches, wondering how she got up there and what had happened between her and Mr Frizzell. On windy nights the tree sighed loudly, and the wallpaper from Paris moved in and out like the house was breathing. When I told Garth about the wallpaper he explained that it was glued onto a sacking called scrim. I never told him about Mrs Bethany, that she came to me in my dreams, always washing the same pair of men’s trousers, wearing huge pearl rings that lathered like soap on her fingers, her throat strangled tight by a necklace of bright gold nuggets.

  

The fence was built in January – right across the front of the site blocking access to the street. After that we opened the front door and sat on the verandah in broad daylight. It was fun on hot days when the town was full of visitors, their jandals flip-flopping along the footpath, squealing about their ice creams melting, not knowing we were living right under their noses in the main street. Garth drew a calendar in chalk on our side of the fence and filled in the days for February, leaving room for other months if we stayed long enough.

On the other side of the fence someone set up a table with a petition to save the tearooms with a banner that said ‘Save Coromandel Heritage’ in big blue letters. Day after day we heard them talking to anyone who would listen about going to the environment court to stop the demolition of a heritage building. We could hear coins dropping in a plastic bucket to pay for lawyers. The day they got a court order to delay the demolition they were very excited. That night Garth went out. I fell asleep on the verandah, listening to the noise of corks popping, clinking glasses, singing and laughter.

A few days later, without warning, Garth came home and marked a cross on the calendar, 23 February. "Time’s up," he said. "We’re out of this heap of shit by tomorrow night."

"But I want to stay," I said. "We don’t have to leave now - based on what I heard at the party." That’s when his Aries really came out. He jabbed his finger right in my face. "You agreed to the conditions. It’s my place. I’m the boss. Do what I tell you!"

I’d already paid rent for the rest of the week because Garth always made me pay in advance, so that night when he came to my room, I shoved him off the bed and told him to get lost. "Ungrateful bitch! I put a roof over your head!" He punched the wall hard on the way out. "You’ll be sorry."

I couldn’t sleep after that. I lay awake listening, waiting for something. But all I heard was scrim and macrocarpa. When the wind got stronger, I got up to shut the window and saw arms waving wildly from the branches. At the first hint of light, I wrapped my things in my blanket and hid them high in the macrocarpa before heading across the paddock.

I know Capricorns can be plodding but they can also be meticulous and lucky. Being meticulous made me climb back into the tree when I returned that evening because, being Aries, Garth was capable of anything and I didn’t know where he was. Lucky, because high up in the branches Mrs Bethany was waiting for me. Another star sign might have gone back inside the tearooms, but I wrapped myself in my blanket and fell asleep to her whispers.

I was woken by a loud crash, the sound of footsteps running fast, the smell of petrol, smashing glass. Through the branches I saw flames burst out the window of my room, seconds later through the roof, the air filled with smoke and sparks. Far below I saw Garth, his face lit by flames as he stood under the tree with his arms folded, watching the fire. By the time the first fire engine arrived he had disappeared. By the time they smashed through the fence, the tearooms had burned to the ground.

The cops put me up in a motel and asked lots of questions. The manager of the gas station had identified me as one of two people he’d seen coming and going across the paddock at all hours. The other was Garth. A security camera had picked him up on the forecourt the day of the fire with a can of petrol for which he’d paid cash.

"Do you know this man?" the cop asked, holding up a picture of Garth. "When is the last time you saw him?" That’s when I found out Garth’s other name was Frizzell. "How do you spell that?" I asked.

According to the motel receptionist the whole town was talking about it. There were loads of rumours going around; the fence had been built deliberately to keep out emergency services, a stranger had been paid to burn the place down, a local, someone with gang connections, a drug addict from Auckland, it was an insurance job, cash had exchanged hands in the pub carpark, a suitcase, a paper bag, a ute was seen leaving, a getaway boat at the wharf, some said $500, others $5000, it was cheaper than going to court.

A journalist came from Auckland to interview me and take my photo for a story in the Sunday Star. The story linked the tearooms to Garth Frizzell to his great-grandfather and Mrs Bethany. History Goes up in Flames! was the headline.

That bought my father to visit. He said was worried about me but I could tell by the way his eyes darted around the motel room, he was more worried about himself. He said things hadn’t settled down at home, my stepmother remained emotionally fragile, he was holding onto his job by the skin of his teeth but had no illusions about the headmaster position. Gene had been diagnosed with some kind of Defiance Disorder, they were hoping he’d grow out of it, they could just manage him at home but not the two of us. The last thing Matamata needed was more scandal. I promised to stay away if he paid upfront for another two months in the motel - the room with the spa pool - and doubled my allowance.

The cops never found Garth Frizzell, but when I told them where to look in the old macrocarpa, they did find Mrs Bethany’s jewellery. When no one claimed it after six months, it was given to me. Sometimes I wear it round town.

The macrocarpa was chopped down when they built the holiday appartments and I never heard or saw Mrs Bethany after that. Now every time I walk past the appartments, I think about the tearooms and the way secrets are kept out of sight in places and in families.

Next week's short story is "Traffic" by Isabel Haarhaus-Michell.

*ReadingRoom short stories appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*

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