LYNDA SCOTT ARAYA
★ ★ ★ ★
‘Neighbourhood Watch in New Zealand’
Each day, she walks in her neighbourhood. Property agents describe it in superlatives. Properties offer stunning beach views. Magnificent gnarled Pohutakawa ground their roots, uncurl their toes in the sand. Houses are elegant, spacious, classic. They look to the future through ambitious solar panels but honour still their past. Some have heritage paint colours, others a wraparound veranda, a nod to the past. Cloying star-shaped flowers dot driveway not their own. Properties for sale sit smug, pretentious. They are all wide smiles and camera angles.
But appearances can be deceiving. When care has been taken. The professional photographers skirt around a fist-shaped hole in a bedroom wall. They kick from view a torn mat that hides the stain of a red wine spilled. Perhaps when love and lust took over. Perhaps too, from a glass thrown in anger where it runs to the floor in slow red rivulets. Like blood from a split lip. Best hidden.
This is the area where the woman lives. From which she needs to escape. Now, more than ever, with New Zealand locked down. She should, she knows, feel happy. After all, wealth is on-tap and she wants for nothing. The chest freezer is full. It always is. So too are the wine cellar and the pantry. At a push of a button, her new refrigerator coughs out ice cubes. In the yard, her husband, re-aligns the flowerbeds. He mows the lawn. Straight lines up. Straight lines down. He is pedantic. Rigid. Unbending from the task at hand. He is controlled. Controlling.
They clash. More creative, she leaves a flurry of flour in the kitchen, tools in the vegetable patch. Often, he reminds her of all that he has done for her. Of all that he does. Of all that is done in love. So much more than she deserves. She nods. Walks away. He is in her way and she in his. She is downtrodden. Miserable. Mostly guilty. She, with the architecturally designed house, with rooms configured to suit contemporary living. In the large rooms, with the neutral décor, she paces the floors. Here she should be able to make her own mark. Instead, she floats from room to room, wanting something different. The walk-in-wardrobe in the master bedroom is her sanctuary. It is wrong, she thinks, this sadness. Selfish. Entitled.
Sometimes, when walking, the woman swerves around parents and prams. Bubble formation! A father shouts to his children. Humour is still possible. People make their own fun these days. The adults exchange quick nods and tight-lipped smiles, the thinner the better to keep out the contagion. Dangerous and deadly. Teddy-bears sit at windows. next to cheerful colourful messages. Big bubble-letters with the Prime-Minister’s messages: Stay home. Stay Safe. Save lives.
Beyond the gleaming windows, she imagines industrious baking: Irish soda bread, hot cross buns, an abundance of dishes using home-grown vegetables bolstered with chickpeas, with lentils. Children sit around marble kitchen islands. All happy. Sleeves rolled up. Perched at the edge of designer high-legged kitchen stools. In easy reach there are Crown Lynn Beehive pottery bowls. They overflow with raisins, currants. Glass jars of spices line up ready for the hot cross buns. It is Pandemic Easter. A time to reflect. Now everyone makes sacrifices. Some more than others. A leg of lamb on an artisan wooden board sits. Spiked through with marching rows of rosemary freshly picked, it oozes blood.
The people in these houses put their photographs on Facebook and Instagram. She knows. She has done it herself. Carefully arranged dishes on heirloom serving plates with jars of still-hot chutneys and preserves in the background. On the stove there is the preserving pan with a dollop of jam at its base. Look at us, the photographs shout. With our abundance, we have prospered. We are the privileged with well-stocked pantries. With tidy lives. We are happy. We have largesse. We are virtuous.
There are also photographs of industrious husbands. In well-landscaped gardens, they bring the outside in. A new conservatory or a deck maximises indoor-outdoor flow. There is time after all. The women stalk their husbands. They hunt for the perfect shot. Their prey, with his tight shorts, that show to perfection his taut bum, digs a new raised garden. He turns slightly. She wants to catch his best angle. He sucks in his middle-aged paunch. Pulls his buttocks inwards. Appearances are so important.
The same is true for Twitter lockdown Friday fashion. Women wriggle into their school formal dresses, dresses made for the eighties. The frocks are fire-truck red, shiny purple taffeta. They have detachable bows, ridiculously large. Bold and one-shouldered, their ruched fronts are forgiving. Show ponies, the women prance at their mirrors. They drop sequins and feathers. Each Friday, they dress, thrust one long leg with golden high heels at the camera. An electronic catwalk of ladies with money to burn. Despite the rising tally of people dying, alone and confused in hospitals, they pirouette in their well-apportioned lounges. In their elevated homes in enviable locations they want to be happy, to share their love. Some take up the pillow challenge. Their backs, away from the camera, are nude while they pose provocatively in pillow-fashioned dresses, tightly belted. Their neighbours watch. Unashamedly, at the bare bottoms squished against balcony glass.
The women feel safe in their sanitised bubbles, although more deaths are predicted. Walking alone each day, the woman thinks about the most vulnerable. The elderly. The sort who recycled, upcycled as a matter of course. They know how to prepare a victory garden, to turn upside down jars of still hot fruit. Now they are isolated. Alone in rest-homes where Scrabble, songs, and daily visits no longer bolster them up and structure their days. Confined to their rooms, they fret, unravel. Anxiety grips them. It twists their mind beyond all knowing. Many succumb to the virus. Family are barred from sickbeds and deathbeds. Stripped of the comforting rituals of religion, only faith is left. Perhaps, in the end, it is only faith that matters. Victims pray. Ragged raspy prayers gasped to a God they hope exists and listens. Relatives also pray. That the sick recover or die at ease. With dignity. That money stretches for funerals. For the paying of last bills. We sacrifice for our elderly, states the prime minister. Each day, she is calm and measured, while behind the scenes her daughter needs reassurance. She is learning to use the potty and ‘mistakes’ are frequent. They are why we went early, and we went hard.
On her daily walk, the woman steps carefully past chalked footpath messages. Sound bites from the press calls:
We are all in this together!
Stay Safe Aotearoa!
We’ve got this!
The woman is not stupid. Safety is elusive, subjective. She knows that there are at least two sides to every story. Multiple stories for those courageous enough to search them out. While there is time. Media companies are crumbling, when they are needed most. To root out the routs of employers; to investigate supermarket price gouging and infection clusters unnamed.
Sometimes, she walks past a house where there is often shouting. She hears it above the neighbours singing the national anthem. Small girls in frilly dresses play their violins as people unite against Covid-19. They wave flags. At 5pm, it is all over. Life must go on and there is ‘The Chase’ on television. There are always winners and losers and life is never fair. People walk faster past the house with the troubles. They take exaggerated steps to avoid the cracks in the lives of others. They blink at the disruption, then walk away. The teddy bears in these windows stare blankly. They do not betray the secrets within. Once, she sees a woman standing at an upstairs window who waves as she passes. She thinks then of first year university English; of the Stevie Smith poem ‘Not Waving, but Drowning.’ The difference, she knows, is slight. An everyday gesture is easy to misinterpret. She remembers a Facebook message popped up on her newsfeed:
Text me and ask me about my orange cat if you need to talk.
Text me and ask about my black cat if you need the police.
The lockdown makes more oppressive everyday prisons. With the men at home or perhaps a woman, with too short a fuse, partners are watched more closely. It is hard to break free, to have a moment to oneself, just to be. People are more creative and not just in the kitchen. She has read of code words a person can whisper over the counter at the petrol station or the fence of a sympathetic neighbour.
In the neighbourhood where the woman lives there are imposing gateways. They are guarded by young lancewood trees that stand proudly; sharp spears pointed to the sky. Driveways bounded by meticulously pruned flax bushes curve up to houses that ooze luxury. Here one can sit in a gorgeous outdoor cedar hot tub or in the established garden. Both are perfect to relax and luxuriate in after a hard day’s work. But in these houses, there is uncertainty. With each day off work the food dwindles. Tempers flare. Shaped by a job, a job now threatened, even gone, people diminish. Become someone else. Someone they wish they were not. Fear and stress stretch them. They implode. Explode. A fist pounds into a doughy face while children stare.
A woman breaches her bubble. She runs from her house to her car. Clutching a baby, she pushes her children in front of her. They wear their pyjamas. She drives away from violence and into safety. In the car, she hears a loud high yowling. It follows her away punctuated by small squeaky gasps. Whimpers that come from somewhere behind her. It is late at night and the traffic lights are kind. So too are the police officer as she tells her story. Calming, she realises that it was she and her children who had made that noise.
Drinking slowly a last bottle of wine, a neighbour raises his glass to history, to what he once had. After his alfresco dining on his deck complete with a stone pizza oven, a gas oven for the odd chilly evening, he stares through his empty glass at the expansive views. Everything seems distorted. His future is foreclosed. He fears the thud of the hammer at a mortgage sale.
Often, the woman passes a young nurse coming back from his shifts. Exhausted, he thinks of his patients, all ill with the virus. Some of them, he hopes, will recover while others he knows will not. He crosses the road when he sees the woman. His mood – jagged raw anger at the enormity of it all consumes him. It is infectious. Unpredictable. People carry the virus on the tip of their tongue. Unaware, they transmit it with a brush of their sleeve against a stranger’s chair. Insidious deadly droplets float through the air. In a global blink of an eye, a pandemic was born, and thousands of lives taken. Taken still. He rages at the injustice. Of steps not taken. Of gaps in the supply chain of PPE and of masks he re-wears. His hospital has no shoe-covers so staff worry endlessly. Each day, the woman and the nurse look across at each other. An essential worker, she thinks. They shout, ‘Hello!’ as they pass. Each to their own homes, their own lives. She imagines his return to his wife and mother, to his house with its manicured lawn, with room for a growing family. Occasionally, she sees his wife waiting at the window. Her hand rests lightly on her growing belly that curves her sari. It comforts her, their small bubble of family, of hope. That despite it all, there are people who care. That he cares. Each shift, he gives his all to work for a future, although on his shoes there may lie the dust of another’s demise. Or even his. She gives a shudder, turns in at her gate.
Although Lynda Scott Araya’s background is in education and she has taught in diverse settings including secondary schools, at tertiary level and in men’s prisons, she has always been passionate about writing. Along with her husband, she co-owns and manages a heritage listed bed and breakfast in rural New Zealand. She is the mother of two children, one of whom is deceased.