This short story by Lynda Taylor of Waiouru won second place in the local section of the William Taylor Memorial Short Story competition for 2018
“C’mon Jed. Let’s check the mail.”
The little dog rouses himself from sleep in the sunny hallway and follows me as I amble along the path.
“Kia ora, neighbour.”
I startle and the flap of the cedar mail box snaps shut. Jed woofs and I stare as the man leans over the low gate, ruffles Jed’s ears and says, “G’day doggy neighbour.”
Straightening up, my new neighbour extends his hand and says, “My name’s Mitch.”
“Ngaire.” His handshake is firm, his skin smooth. He has earnest brown eyes and silver-black hair.
“So, Ngaire, I’ve been meaning to have a kōrero.”
An uncomfortable silence revolves between us. It’s almost a week since the house-bus appeared in the yard next-door, behind Tabitha’s Costume Hire.
When Mitch speaks his words come softly, tumbling like cherry blossoms.
“I feel really bad that the bus is parked so close to your big window. I want to explain a few things and was wondering if you’d come over and have fish and chips with me tonight. We could eat outdoors at my fold-out table. What d’ya think?”
It’s a tempting offer.
“OK… I’ll bring some buttered bread and maybe a couple of limes to squeeze over the fish.”
He flashes me a smile.
“Awesome. Yeah, I’ve seen your lime tree from across the fence. It’s a beauty. So how about you come over at five-thirty?”
I scoop Jed into my arms and ask if he’s invited too.
“You kidding me? Leaving your buddy home alone would just be mean.”
“I agree. We’ll see you later then.”
I put my hand through the rails and unlatch the rusty wrought iron gate. It opens with a groan and sigh and I call Mitch’s name. Meanwhile, Jed dashes along the grassy gravel driveway, stopping intermittently to pee. I close the gate and call again, but there is no response. Stones crunch underfoot as I walk towards a round folding table and two canvas deckchairs, placed in front of the house-bus. I put my keys and the bag of food down and look around. Hydrangea bushes line the back fence and Jed shuffles and snorts beneath their skirts.
But the sound of the gate creaking open and Mitch calling distracts Jed and he hurtles down the driveway. As Mitch walks, Jed bounces beside him.
I greet Mitch and he offers me a drink. He fetches two bottles from a fridge inside the bus while I set out the food.
“The sausage is a treat for Jed,” Mitch says, passing me a Peroni and sitting down. “But we should probably wait for it to cool.”
“You’ll be his best friend.”
“I’d like for us all to be friends.”
It was spoken in a way that made me think of lemon meringue pie.
“The thing is, Ngaire, is that I expected to be here just a night or two. My ex father-in-law is in the hospice at Princess Alexandra. The family doesn’t like me very much, but I found out that Rhys was expected to live only three to five days. That was more than a week ago.”
“God, that’s awful. I’m really sorry.”
Mitch looks past me, focusing on something in the distance.
“When I think back, tinkering with small motors was something Rhys and I both liked to do and we just clicked. After Soraya left, Rhys would still come and see me. We’d fix lawn mowers and chainsaws out in the shed. Or just talk.”
My attention is drawn to Mitch’s long slender fingers, as he places a piece of fish between two slices of bread.
“So, Ngaire, tell me some things about you.”
“Well first up, I’m a bit of a stranger to city living. For 15 years I lived at a semi-rural property in Taihape, with my husband and children. Our boys grew up and both moved to Auckland. Eighteen months ago my husband died in an accident and I decided to make a fresh start here in Napier. And it’s coming up four months since I moved in to the cottage next-door.”
“Auē. I think you’re a strong woman.”
Lemon meringue pie again.
Mitch throws the sausage to Jed and it’s gone in two gulps. The greedy terrier then runs back to Mitch, sits at his feet and gazes up at him. My eyes meet Mitch’s and we laugh out loud.
Mitch sips his Peroni and places the bottle gently on the table.
“Ngaire, I get that having the bus here impacts on you. It’s not what you want to look out at and it probably blocks the sun. But from here I can walk to visit Rhys and that’s important to me. See, my brother is president of the operatic society that owns this property. He said parking-up here was to be a one-off thing and he gave me a key so I can use the facilities at the back of Tabitha’s. I suspect you know that’s what I do, though.”
I feel colour rising in my cheeks and swallow hard. Yesterday I stood at my bay window and glimpsed Mitch through carefully tipped venetians. He walked across the morning with his combed wet hair clinging to his scalp and the creamy white towel around his waist highlighting the hazelnut brown of his skin.
“Well, um, I’m grateful for the explanation, Mitch. Did you travel far in the bus?
“Not too far. I live in Taupō, where my partner owns a business, selling and leasing caravans, motorhomes and the occasional house-bus. I clean the vehicles and have troubleshooting skills when it comes to motors. I drove the Bedford here to see how it performed. Clinton said there’d been some concern from a customer about a knocking sound coming from the motor.”
“I see. And Clinton is your partner?”
“Āe, he is.”
A shiver of wind rustles the chip paper. I lick salt from my fingertips.