ReadingRoom

Short story: Traffic, by Isabel Haarhaus

"One day, shifting him between grazing paddocks, they had to take the pony along the State Highway": a short story by Auckland writer Isabel Haarhaus.

Melissa and her mother had moved into a garage. It was under the house of a friend of Tash’s. There they made a makeshift home, away from Ted and his violent rages. He was a big and very good looking man. He could be charming, cooking up unusual food in a wok and topping it with cashew nuts, taking time with the girls and their ponies, and coming home with cold white wine and flowers for Tash. He was a deer hunter and owned a helicopter, a new Commodore, and one of the only VHS players in the town. And he could be very ugly. The last time tying Tash up and then throwing beer bottles at her. Ruth had seen that. The girls had gone outside that night, taking Melissa’s mum’s cigarettes, and stood smoking and fighting with each other away from the house.

The pony Ted bought Melissa was a nervy little thing. Cherokee, named for the pattern of his coat. He was jittery and very hard to ride but the girls loved him. They loved his spirit and his cute looks. He was a very upright pony and he pranced. Everyone said how much Chero was like Missy. The girls loved the fantasy life they lived with him, and imagined his loyalty and their many adventures and long friendship with him.

One day, shifting him between grazing paddocks, they had to take him along the State Highway. The long straight road had two lanes and there was not much room on either side, only steep narrow ditches. They knew it would be tricky, especially if trucks came roaring past, which they were bound to. Chero would get scared and bolt for sure.

Melissa, Ruth and Tash took the pony along the road and when a car or truck came Ruth stood in the middle of the road and waved it down to slow. She did that quite spontaneously, after the first car caused the pony to nearly tear away. But Melissa was embarrassed by her friend’s actions. She did not want her to draw so much attention to what they were doing. What if someone saw them, what if her brother and some of his friends drove by? But Ruth kept doing it. It was automatic: she saw something coming in the distance and just stepped into the centre of the road, stretched her arms out wide, and with her face boiling, held steady, tried to catch the driver’s eyes to get him to slow down. It was lucky that they did. And it was lucky that she did, because even with the trucks slowed to a crawl, Chero bucked and carried on, and tried to break free of the situation.

  

When they got back to the garage after shifting the pony, Tash made quite a fuss of what a good friend Ruth was for acting so bravely to defend Chero from his own fears, and that made matters worse. Melissa hated it when Ruth got the attention, especially from Tash. Tash was always saying what a good girl Ruth was and what a good influence she was on Melissa.  Melissa hated Ruth sometimes, and her mum, for liking her friend more.

Later on, while Tash was measuring Ruth for a polka-dotted mini skirt she was making her, Melissa rang Ted to say hi but ended up telling him where they were. When he answered the phone he acted surprised to hear from her even though it seemed like he had been waiting for a call, because he answered the phone so quickly. Usually he hated the phone. He certainly didn’t like Tash talking on it.

"So, where are you girls? Where’s ya mum hiding you this time?" he asked Melissa with a smile in his voice. Then he whispered, "I miss you."

Now that Melissa was 12, she had started to change her opinion of Ted. She sort of liked him, she had decided, and she definitely liked him to notice her and see how good she was at things, like riding and doing backward walkovers and diving into really big waves. She was good at those things and she looked good in her chewing-gum jeans or her togs when she practised them.

Her mum had been with him on and off since she could remember, since before she was born probably, and she had usually found it annoying when Tash got back together with him again. It had always meant really late noisy nights and weirdly quiet days. Quite often it meant her mum sat in the bath for a whole day. As a little girl Melissa had preferred to be left out when they were living with Ted, taking herself off as much as she could, but lately she had quite liked to be part of things, or better still, to be with him on her own. Lately, sometimes, when her mum was busy, Ted would say, "Come here girl, come and talk to your old man," and he would pull her towards him and ask her about herself. Did she have a boyfriend? Oh sure she did, she was so pretty. Melissa would feel embarrassed, but she liked it too.

"Shut up!" she’d say, laughing. Then he might grab her, sort of wrestle her, but more gently than he used to when she was little. Sometimes he’d give her a little kiss. But what she liked about talking to him on her own was that she could tell him about what she could do without her mum saying stupid things about what she used to do when she was a baby.

"I miss you too," she said, a bit snarkily, then, "I bet mum does too."

"Never mind about your old lady now. It’s you I wanna see, girl," he said. And Melissa felt a rush of heat course through her.

So she told him where they were and waited. She knew her mum would act pissed off but be secretly pleased because she always ended up back with him anyway.

Tonight there would be a big elaborate dinner and there might be a video till late and definitely some wine and pot. Melissa might get to stay up with them and Ted might even give her a toke, like the last few times. She quite liked getting stoned actually. She liked the way it made an ordinary thing – like a hand or a vase – stand out as if it had an outline around it, or was hotter or colder than the other things in the room. Suddenly you really noticed things, and quite ordinary things made masses of sense, as if before you just hadn’t seen them properly or really understood what their purpose was. Quite often it was amazing to realise that the most basic thing, like the way furniture sat in the room, the way a particular coffee table stood against a particular couch, had some kind of perfection about it; like it really was all meant to be exactly like that. Everything seemed perfect and special and purposeful somehow. It was a good feeling, everything making sense, everything seeming like it had been thought out, like it had been thoughtfully decided.

She would have to get rid of Ruth before Ted came though. If Ruth was there Ted would treat her like a baby too. Ruth wasn’t up to it yet. She was way too babyish, and a bit weird too. The way she had just stood in the middle of the road today, the way she had just stood in front of those massive oncoming trucks. They were coming on fast and Ruth had just stood there, still, with her arms stretched out and her stare totally steady. She looked weird standing there like a skinny scarecrow with that ugly short hair and intense red face pleading for the traffic to slow.

Next week's short story is "The Transit of Mercury"by Fiona Farrell.

* ReadingRoom short stories appear thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand *

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