Yvette Carol

Children's Writer

98

4

Birdma, she Taniwha

8 o’clock.

“Annie! Annie!”

I hear the unmistakeable croaky voice. I shiver and tremble. I pretend I haven’t heard her, and stare fixedly at the cement. After all, I have got headphones on. Maybe my music is too loud.

“ANNIE!” The voice is shrill now, and pierces the miasma of the rainstorm and the music like a needle through cloth. I can tell by the way the tone has taken on urgency and gathered a stormy threatening edge that she means business this time. She'll keep me there, I'll never get to school on time!

I can feel her physical force bear down upon me. Even though I keep my eyes on the patch of footpath beyond her house, a wall of force is interfering with mine; it impresses itself into my space.

She’s here, oozing up too close as always, breathing right into my mouth. I try not to recoil from the sight of her up close. Her faint blue eyes have that icky eye-goop in the corners. Her teeth are yellow and in between each one is old food maybe weeks or months old by the looks.

I hop hopefully from foot-to-foot, still clinging on to the idea I might carry on my run. I try not to stare at the parrot. Folks in these parts call Moseley “Birdma” because of the dingy white parrot which rides everywhere on her shoulder. Draeko.

The rain shower subsides, and slow drips pool and slip off the brim of my peaked cap.

“Didn’t you hear me, missy?” She demands in her high voice. “I’ve been yelling from the doorstep. Draeko and I have been waiting. We need your help!”

As I take the headphones and cap off, I look around at the pohutakawa trees, and clumps of flax, at the line of wooden single-storey houses, even the school boys who trundle past. No one can help.

The boys kick stones and chatter loudly. “Good morning, Birdma, Good morning, Miss.”

“Kia ora, Tahu, kia ora, Maui. I’m your relief teacher again today, so I’ll see you in class.” I wave as they move on. Teaching the kids, whenever they need me, is the greatest joy of my life. It also helps pay the bills.

The boys skitter along the footpath with backward looks at the tiny aged woman by my side. I can hear them whisper, “Birdma, she Taniwha, I tell ya.” “I heard she done time, too, cuz,” “Naw!” “Yeah, she’s makin’ drugs as well as kid into kai in that outhouse!” “Whoa!”

Only once the boys are farther down the road do they carry on their game of throwing stones onto people’s lawns. I make a mental note to talk to them about that later. Why are they barefoot in this weather? Where are their raincoats? I wonder if they had breakfast. I shake my head, squinting after them.

“Good morning, Grandma Moseley.” I still do the sideways jig of the interrupted jogger.

Moseley lives alone, she has done since her husband passed away five years ago. She seems to think I belong to her. I think its because we’ve grown up on the same street, and I’ve known her since I was small.

“You shouldn’t wear those things over your ears,” she shouts, “they put poison into your head. They’ll kill ya' dead.”

I sling the phones around my neck. “What do you need help with?” Maybe I can hurry this process along?

“It’s my pills, I can’t find them!” Moseley’s voice rises to a shaky pitch.

Birdma has had six strokes, so they say. You never can tell with folks whether they’re telling their truth, someone else’s truth, the whole truth or some tiny portion. So I’ve always taken the middle road and assumed she’d had at least one stroke along the way. Whatever happened to her, it had kicked her brain off-centre. Just like mamas. I knew there was a local nurse who visited Moseley to check on her medication each month, and that it was vital she took her pills each day. Even when she did take her medication, she was still a bit terrifying.

I give her a smile and say, “Come on, I’ll help you.” 

Grandma Moseley turns. On her shoulder, Draeko, shifts with a flap of feathers. It releases a stream of poop, some of which hits the grass, some of which hits the hem of her woollen skirt, joining up with the other splodges in a gross pattern of splatter.

I follow her.

She hobbles with a walking stick in one hand and an umbrella in the other. How she’s stayed in her own home when she’s so decrepit, I don’t know. But, I can’t help admire her tenacity.

“I can’t find my pills anywhere,” she repeats as she stomps up the ramp and steps inside the hulking Victorian villa.

“Where do you put them normally, my dear?” I ask, looking down the hallway at the many dark doorways inside her home.

The house is hers and the parrot’s, as Draeko’s droppings on the floor and the back of every chair declare. Moseley doesn’t believe in keeping him in a cage. As if to make the point, Draeko leaves her shoulder and sails to a sideboard, where he pecks at a bowl of seed. Moseley needs a cleaning service, some in-home help. I should have a talk with her medication nurse.

I spy two coffee cups on the side-table and a plate of sliced up cake.

“Coffee, Annie?” asks Moseley, in a pleading voice, her eyebrows riding high in expectation.

I sigh. She’s got me. I check my watch, its quarter past eight. In another twenty minutes I need to get to the local school, or I’ll be late. They’ve warned me about that once before. No more marks against my name!

“Okay, a quick one.”

She disappears into the kitchen.

I pluck some papers and sodden clothes from the armchair beside hers and deposit them on the sofa. The smell in the house is dank, cloying and hints of ammonia. I really must get some help in here for her.

I realize with sadness that Mosely is no longer capable of caring for herself. She'd always been so fiercely independent. I ease myself into the floral armchair while I grapple with this thought. My joints grind against one another. Damn it, no run today to oil them for me.

Moseley sets a battered coffee pot on the table between our chairs. Rattle, clink.

Her cheeks are so furry, I think, and I do my best not to stare at the whiskers which sprout from her chin. I can feel my heart strings being tugged. Mama would have been her age by now if she hadn’t had a heart attack years before. Before she died, Ma had begun to grow a beard. “We probably need to talk about whether you need some domestic help now," I say. "Do you know what I mean? I don’t know how you manage. I’m lucky I have my sister living with me.”

“Very nice for some. Some people are made of money!” Moseley snaps. “No matter what happens, you’ll always make sure YOU come out on top. You’re like a cockroach, aren’t you, Annie!”

“I, I...,”

“You’re soooo lucky? Well, bully for you!” She glares at me. The pinched lips, the sharp light glances off her glasses, there is a thin cold angle to her cheek. She grabs her stick and whumps it down onto the arm of the sofa, raising a pall of dust. Her eyes narrow in a dangerous fashion.

I spill coffee in my lap, ready to leap from my seat if the stick comes near me.

Then, before I can move, she sinks back into her former visage of a harmless old woman. She sags into her chair and starts to weep.

I reach over to pat her arm and reassure her. “It’s okay, it’s all right.”

“It’s just that I’ve searched everywhere for my pills and can’t find them,” the words squeak out between the tears.

I reach for a tissue from the box wedged between the pot plants. At the same time, I spy the circular shape of her plastic pillbox, among the greenery. “Here it is!” I say with profound relief.

She yanks the pillbox out of my hands.I notice she's wearing even more rings today than usual. She likes to wear tarnished silver rings, engraved with strange symbols. Grandma Moseley blinks and peeks up at me, the way a five-year-old does before they can feel all the way good again. “You found my pills?” 

“Yes, that was easy, wasn’t it?” I check my watch. “Make sure you take the medication right away, okay?"

I watch her out of the corner of my eye. “I’ll be mum,” I say, trying to be helpful while at the same time move things along.

“Not too much.” She pops a pill, then watches me pour the tan liquid into the cups.

When Draeko squawks near my ear, I jump.

“Don’t spill any. You know how expensive coffee is!” She directs me further. “One spoon of sugar, no, two, did I say, two, I meant one. Oh, never mind, I’ll just drink it like that then and put up with it being ruined.” Moseley grabs the cup, tastes hers and peers at me when I lift mine to my lips.

I have to avert my gaze from the marks on the rim. I don’t think she washed these before using them. Is that a lipstick stain? I swallow the weak drink, and wonder if I have to eat the cake as well. Is she losing her mind? Are these signs of dementia? Or does she just need a housekeeper?

“Eat up, help yourself,” Moseley says, and shoves the cake plate towards me. I shift some of the dried flower arrangements and ancient books out of the way, and slip a piece of sponge onto my plate. I lift the slice to my lips, and bite. Stale! Poor Birdma!

But, the sip of coffee and the bite of cake have satisfied her for now.

She slurps her own cup with a shrivelled hand.

“I always like it when you visit,” she says.

“Thank you,” I say, waiting for the crazy.

“It’s scary sometimes here in this big house being all alone.”

“Yes, it must be hard for you,” I think, Maybe it's time she went into a resthome? "Look, I have to go now. I’m late. I'll be back to talk.”

“Already? You only just got here!”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. I have to teach a class today, and before then, I must put the washing out.”

“Ha. In this weather, you can’t put the washing out!” She jumps onto this titbit, as if this nugget of information can keep me there. At the same time, she shoves her walking stick in front of me, barring my way.

“That’s true,” I say, keeping my tone breezy. “I’ll put the load into the dryer. I'm sorry, I must go. But, don't worry. I will be back to talk to you about some solutions, okay?”

“You didn’t finish your coffee and cake.”

I force myself to empty the cup, and pop the remaining cake in my mouth. I have to suppress a shudder at the touch of an acrid taste which I figure must have been mould. “Okay?” I say, grabbing her cane to move it aside. “You have everything you need for now?”

“We don’t want to be alone, do we, Draeko?”

"You know there are some lovely options you could look at. I'll help you, but not now, I have class soon."

The parrot utters a loud squawk and swoops across to land on her shoulder.

I push myself to stand, although I feel very tired.

Moseley sticks out a ringed finger and points the red-tip at me. “You don’t care about another person, that’s your problem.”

I edge closer to the exit.

Grandma Moseley rocks once, twice, three times before launching herself to standing. She grasps her cane and hobbles towards me, seeming to grow in size.

I feel a deep chill skitter down my spine.

“You’ve got a black heart.” The overstuffed bookshelves and cabinets of knick-knacks tower over me and seem to billow towards the ceiling.

I back towards the exit. Even the pot plants seem to move towards me.

“You’re a wicked, no-good flibbertygibbit who only cares about herself.” Chin jutting, Birdma lumbers closer. Her footsteps boom on the wooden floor. A large shadow flows forward growing with every step.

I try the door and find it’s locked. I'm so cold I press my lips together so my teeth won't chatter.

The pressure starts to build. Fresh air. I need fresh air. I need to see the sky. I need to hear happy voices. I need to see the children on their way to school. I need to get out of here!

I whip around. Is she really a Taniwha? My vision blurs, then, I see her shadow loom and surge. Her eyes pierce the blackness.

She’s upon me. “You make me sick! You always have.” Moseley spits gobs of cake onto my top.

Panic squeezes my throat so I can’t breathe.

Her mole-covered hand snakes out, and in that moment of clarity, I flash on my mother’s hand and the stick she used to beat me with.

A force of my own blusters forth from me. “NO!” I cry. “You can’t treat me this way. STOP IT!”

Moseley’s face stops inches from mine when she lets her hand drop to her side. The whites around her pupils show. Her nostrils flare.

I hold my breath.

She breaks out into raucous laughter.

I wet my lips and try the door handle a second time. “Let me out, right now.”

Moseley draws a key out of her pocket, and then creaks open the door, inch-by-inch. The slice of colourful world outside grows wider.

“Give us a hug, won’t you?” Moseley pleads.

I feel the steel bands of her arms claw round me and squeeze me tight. I stretch my neck sideways to avoid getting pecked by Aroha. Moseley makes those strange sounds like she’s siphoning energy from me the way kids steal petrol from cars. Oof! Whoosh! Ah!

She releases me.

I spring across the threshold. I’m out!

“Annie, I never liked you much. However, you’re better than having no one.”

I stutter and blink. I think my mouth opened and closed again just like they do on the movies.

“Love you, see you tomorrow!” Then she smiles in the sweet, I’m-frail-love-me way of the elderly and closes the door.

 It's 9 o'clock.

 

 

 

 

Comments

Please sign in or sign up to comment.