Emily arrived at the house as the sun rolled above the roofline, painting the drab weatherboards lemon, turning the last leaves of the Glory Tree gold. That was her name for the kowhai her father planted when she was born. In later years she used to lie beneath its branches pretending she was a princess waiting for a handsome prince to wake her with a kiss. Forty years on she no longer believed in the transformative power of princes, though twelve years with Hamish certainly woke her up to a few things.
She opened the gates, collected the mail from the box and walked up the cracked concrete drive, looking back at the street to see what had changed since her last visit. She smiled to see so much restoration work in progress on the old wooden houses. After she’d fled from Hamish seven years ago, she was devastated to find all those gracious homes with their gable ends, wrap-around verandahs, and stained glass panels framing kauri front doors, divided into flats, rented out to students and left to rot. Since then, the most dilapidated ones had been snapped up by developers, demolished and replaced with concrete boxes crammed inside once spacious gardens. But when the banks eased up on lending restrictions, young couples started buying the houses that were still standing and began the process of turning them back into family homes. Weatherboards were sanded back and re-painted in soft colours, offset by white iron lace. Rusting iron roofs were replaced. Gardens formerly knee deep in nettles sprouted green lawns bordered by flowerbeds. The sound of children’s voices spilled over fences.
Real estate agents had contacted her several times in the months since her last visit to persuade her to sell. They had waiting lists of potential buyers, they said. Renovating old character homes had become trendy. The sub-text was that her house was the worst on the street. She already knew this. Her father would have been mortified to see the peeling weatherboards and overgrown garden, but on her return to New Zealand the only job she’d been able to get was three hundred kilometres away. Now that she’d quit that job before it swallowed her alive she had barely enough money to live on, let alone enough to restore the house to its former glory. It would be logical to sell. A young family would love it. The house would love it.
She turned her key in the front door, pausing as always to run her hand over the amber and green glass panel that her brother had cracked with his cricket ball, down the hall with its ornate plaster arch and ceiling roses and into the kitchen. She laid her weekend case on the table and breathed in the familiar smell of old rooms and beeswax. She lit the fire in the wood stove, pulled up a chair and warmed her hands by the flames. It had been a long drive down through the night and she was bone tired.
Within minutes she felt her over-wound heart slow to a steadier beat. There was no sign of the residents yet, but she knew they’d be along sooner or later to go about their business, which often, though not always, involved searching for something. Their presence brought comfort in a way that the company of other people did not. When she was a child they would sometimes tell her stories. Once, a small wisp of a woman told her she’d buried her entire family after the 1918 ’flu epidemic. Emily asked her why she stayed. The woman said it was because this was where she’d been happiest. Emily told her mother the story, adding that she supposed this was why all the residents stayed. Her mother’s shocked face confused her. She told Emily never to say such things again. The irony was, Emily thought now, catching the scent of lavender on the cold air, she was certain her mother was here too, searching for her boy. Far from making her sad, the faint drift of lavender in the rooms triggered memories of being loved and of things lasting forever, though all that changed the day her brother failed to return home. The Police at the front door. The drunk driver in Court. The funeral. The house full of cards and flowers. The receding tide of visitors and months of silence. Her father’s bird-watching binoculars gathering dust in her brother’s bedroom. Her mother lying blank-eyed on his blue racing car bed, slowly fading into the walls. Worst of all, though, was the closed piano lid.
In the years Emily was living on the Outer Hebrides with Hamish, no longer deluding herself she was happy, but unable to find an escape route, she was unaware that on the other side of the world her father was spending more time in his chair sleeping. One day his book slid off his lap. Three weeks later the tenant next door called the police. Hamish grudgingly accepted this as a valid reason to give Emily back her passport. She left her few possessions behind to convince him she would return.
She walked slowly through the silent rooms, remembering birthdays, Christmas, the house full of people, cooking smells, games and presents, dogs and cats and guinea pigs, her brother playing the piano, her ten-year-old self playing the flute, her mother singing, her father telling jokes that made everyone hoarse with laughter.
She returned to the kitchen and flicked through the mail; more leaflets from estate agents and one from a piano-tuner. She looked across the room at the closed piano lid under its coating of dust. Two children burst through the door and out again, clattering up the stairs laughing. A man wandered in with his three small daughters. He showed them how to do handstands against the far wall. In the garden a gust of wind rattled the Glory Tree. It held fast to its last leaves.
“The Glory Tree” first appeared in Former Cactus, 2018; And, Soul Etchings: collected short stories (Retreat West Books, 2019)
FEATURED IMAGE: Jocelyne Clermont “la maison bleue”, 2021. acrylic on wood panel. , 10×10. Atelier at Rosemère, Québec. https://www.facebook.com/Jocelyne-Clermont-artiste-peintre Represented by Galerie d’Art Josette Tilmant. Saint-Sauveur, Québec. www.josettetilmant.com
Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia and is the author of five books including three novels, a non-fiction work and a collection of flash fiction. Her work has been widely published and anthologised internationally and placed and short-listed in various competitions. She has been nominated for The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions and The Pushcart Prize. She was awarded a residency at the Robert Lord Writers Cottage in Dunedin in 2020 to complete a new collection of flash fiction.