Trudy Twaddle rubbed clear the bleary kitchen window. Dead cluster flies crusted the frame. Others battered malevolently at the net curtains. They searched for tidbits, spotted for trouble. Outside, her towels hung sullenly. A single bed sheet dragged in the mud where her dog fretted at the end of her tether. The chain was wrapped around a front leg, crisscrossed like a grotesque ballet shoe that gouged her leg. The dog worried a corner of the sheet; twisted cotton strands spread like a pale virus over the yard. Beyond Trudy’s fence loomed Mount Gray, up which people, younger than her, would run, all busting their gut to be the fittest. The best. Today, though there were only a few sheep, shrouded in coastal morose mist which mizzled over the village.
Sighing, Trudy took off her apron, folded it reverently. It had been her mother’s and cheerful once, with geometric flowers in vibrant oranges and reds. The material was all faded now, threadbare in places, but still, she loved it. On her mantlepiece stood her mother’s funeral notice, foxed, and creased. Funny to think that now she was older than her mother had ever been. She had died of breast cancer, aged only 62. Once, Trudy had wished that her husband had got on with her mother better, but he was long gone too, having chased that floozie back up to Auckland and good riddance to him. She had hated his philandering, his drunken rages which left her bruised. On edge. Ready for flight or fight. She had never been sure. It was hard to forget his violence or that time she had barricaded herself in the garden shed. Nor was it easy to forgive a neighbour two doors down who had watched it all from her yard. Watched but never lifted a finger to help.
The grandfather clock in the hallway stood silent, smashed long ago with a drunken fist, but she knew that the bus to Dunedin would be at the stop in a few minutes. After her hospital appointment, she would look in the shops. Only a look, as her pension never stretched to anything new. But, still, a change was as good as a holiday. As usual, she checked the mail. Not that she ever expected much. Nothing good seemed to come her way. This time though, there was a parcel. Clumsily wrapped, her name scrawled in thick red crayon. But no return address and no stamp. It banged heavily in her bag as she heaved herself into the bus, its steps slick with rain, with a blob of dog pooh that stuck to one shoe.
Once seated, she settled down to unwrap it. Inside, on a torn scrap of paper was emblazoned: Watch UR back. It was written in the same fat red crayon in angry spiky capitals that marched across the paper. They reminded her of old anti-Russian Communist propaganda posters that she had seen in the 1950s and 1960s: Reds under the Beds. Trust Nobody And Fear Everybody. She thought her trip to Dunedin now was quite ruined by thinking that someone wished her ill. Maybe, she thought, even wanted her dead.
Outside, the wind had strengthened, whipping dead leaves into a frenzy, herding them hard against the bus windows where they sat like so many slippery truths and rumours. Trees bent their heads to the weather. Over and over, she heard the sinister whispering slush of the wet roads against the tyres. Surely, she thought, she had no enemies. There had been, of course that one small infraction at the RSA’s annual dinner when she had questioned whether Mrs Ah’s dishes were quite what one expected at a patriotic gathering. Trudy knew that she wasn’t racist. She was sure of it. Asians were marvellous at doing what they did. Market gardening, for instance. She just had not been convinced that Aileen’s dish of baked tofu was enough. Or right. The tofu had stuck to her dentures and looked like something that her dog might have puked up. Only some creamy blobs and a few stingy strips of meat. No, that could not have caused so much upset that someone would leave such a hateful package in her mailbox. After all, she had only brought up the matter at the next RSA meeting because it was important to be inclusive in a small village. SHE had definitely not been included in that meal choice, she had said.
The fug of the bus, its ponderous groans as it laboured up the hill, combined with the memory of the white tofu wobbling obscenely in its red sauce, made Trudy feel nauseous. Pull yourself together, Twaddle, she muttered. The package was surely just a prank. Probably the neighbour’s boy. She had had to speak harshly to him on several occasions. Firstly, he had thrown his ball into her yard where it had broken the stem of her tallest sunflower, the one that she had been hoping to exhibit in the upcoming A&P show. Then, he had thrown a party when his parents were away. Loud music had blared throughout the night, rattling her doors and senses. Going outside in her nightie, she had seen a couple pressed up against a lamppost. The girl’s dress was rucked up, her bottom pale and puckered, her pursed small lips puffing. Startled, the girl had turned her head and looked straight at Trudy with anguished, rounded eyes. A possum in headlights. Nowhere to go but to hell and back, the old woman had thought.
She had, of course, spoken to the boy’s parents the next day; pointed at the beer bottles that littered her agapanthus bed, at the pool of vomit that seeped at the curb. He had stood there too, unrepentant with his fat marrow-like arms folded, his thick thighs haka dance spread. He was just like his stolid father, who told her that boys would be boys and there was no harm done. The boy needed to let off steam and, after all, plenty of boys liked a good time and the girls were as keen as mustard. A good time, but not a long time, Trudy had replied bitterly. That was what men were like. Someone to hurt. Someone to fuck and then be on the road again, looking for something different. Someone better.
Yes, Trudy thought now. Maybe the neighbours had left her the parcel. They knew her routine; probably the boy had slipped it in her mailbox on his way to school. Trudy rubbed the fogged-up window and saw that she would soon be in Dunedin. The bus was just wending its way past the Waitati estuary, with its tide half out. The black swans were dancing slow pirouettes, tutu feathers trailing in the murky sludge, breasts defiantly turned against the wind. Trudy moved slightly in her seat, unobtrusively felt again the hard hot lump just below her left nipple, the sting in her armpit. When she had first noticed it, she had tried to reason it away as a figment of her imagination, perhaps a last cruel joke of menopause. But her doctor, Mr. Woods, had arranged an urgent appointment. Blood tests. A mammogram in the big hospital in Dunedin.
At her last visit to him, he had been kind, had chosen his words carefully. It was, she thought a far cry from when she had launched an investigation into the RSA’s missing monies. His wife was Treasurer, although Trudy knew that she could have done the job better. The committee had all agreed that the Poppy Day profits would be used for the hall’s upkeep. Four hundred dollars it had been, not to mention the umpteen volunteer hours, the stalls in the rain with the noise of the traffic and the roaring wind. Trudy had been livid when she found out that the money had disappeared. She told her friend, Mrs Bishop, that she had never trusted the doctor’s wife with her mean lips, slashed with bright red lipstick. Loose. Unpredictable. Too much time on her hands, that was the problem. She had spent a lot of her time with Trudy’s no-good husband in the past. Trudy was sure of it.
There had been the sly looks passing between them at the church social, and soft shy smiles that never came her way. Trudy had even found a screwed-up receipt for Cadbury Roses in the kitchen bin. She had sent the woman a Facebook message: Who do you think you are?
Slut. Bitch. She gathered up these words that her husband so often spat at her and regurgitated them around the village on spiteful posters that she left on the village seats, in the small library and in the public toilets. Still, that had been justified. The woman was a harlot. No, she had no reason for anyone to wish her ill, she thought as she lumbered off the bus and off to her appointment.