“She smiled to herself though thinking of what a surprise her present would be for them at Christmas…”
SP, which he liked to be called, was short for Simon Peter. That was daddy’s name, but also Suzie’s Parent, one of her own jokes that made him smile. Her mother was Greta, whose lovely blonde hair looked almost like white fire when she ran along the side of the pool and jumped in. On summer evenings SP’s and Greta’s friends sat round the pool and Leila, who was 18 and wore a flower in her hair came to work from right across the city in a funny yellow car, moved among them pouring drinks and offering plates of nice things to eat. The friends would sometimes make ‘wow!’ sounds when she walked past, and Uncle Harry said once when Suzie was standing nearby and he didn’t know, “If Jacinda didn’t lock us up for even thinking it, I’d crack a fat in no time.”
Suzie puzzled a great deal about the world grown-ups lived in. She had no firm ideas but lots of instincts. And of course they never explained things to you properly. Like it was dumb even asking. “Go and play” meant really “We won’t tell you anyway.” She didn’t like it either when Greta made her wear new clothes so people would say “how gorgeous” and only said so because her mother waited for it. Then she met a new friend of her own in the Small Dog Park who was ten the same week as herself. A real friend, not just one at school. Dale told her things she would not have thought of for herself. She said from the start that grown-ups were wankers, which no one had ever said to her before. Other things too that Suzie didn’t really understand. There was a place with a name like Maoris say it but not New Zealand luckily. It was sinking under the sea because the heel of capitalism was pressing it down. She said her mum stood on the corner of a street in the city and held up pictures of children so skinny they seemed like someone had just thrown a cloth over a pile of bones.
Why? Suzie asked her friend.
Because other people eat too much.
But it’s not here though is it?
Dale rolled her eyes that meant just how thick can you be? You can’t explain it just like that, her friend said, it’s the system.
I don’t know what that means either.
It’s a matter of awareness, really, Dale said.
Suzie’s dog was a white bichon and Dale’s you couldn’t be sure about but was gentler than it looked. Their names were Gucci and Molotov, and so liked being together the girls joked that’s no surprise is it, we do too. Each knew that in the Small Dog Park they were so very different but as if that mattered. As they said goodbye when they took their dogs through the double gates Suzie walked up the hill where the houses had nice trees growing round them and Dale walked the other way downhill to the smaller houses where the lawn wasn’t cut in some of them, and the cars parked out on the street didn’t always go. Neither was bothered too much about that, even though Dale had explained in a sort of way about the system, and said one day, You know those jelly lollies that look a bit like little people? Get some of those and that’s how you begin to learn. It seemed more of a game though than learning something. Suzie thought she might understand it better if she went over it with Gucci on the way home, but it was harder than you might think to say in your own words what was so clear when Dale was telling her.
It doesn’t come over night, Suzie’s friend said, it can take a long time for consciousness to evolve. And then to make it clearer, explained that her dad said you grow into some words, even as you grow out of others.
The girls watched the dogs mock fighting over a piece of rope an earlier dog to the park must have left behind. They told each other how their parents had no idea a lot of the time. Like Dale’s dad wouldn’t take her to Kentucky Fried even for her birthday, part as it was of the American empire, and took the family instead to eat rice at a Chinese. And Suzie said didn’t she understand just, for her birthday they dragged her to a place called La something or other, and Greta had said you’re old enough now Suzie love to try your first snail.
Snail? Jesus wept, that’s what Dale’s dad would have said.
And the lolly game which wasn’t really a game began to make sense. Well, sort of. If you thought about it with the drawing pin game Dale also advised her to play. Although Dale still said things at times that Suzie was hesitant to ask her to explain. Even with your best friend you don’t want to seem too dumb. No one does. But in the meantime she knew it was important that one day she would share it with SP and Greta, because they were all such good mates, as Greta kept telling her. It was a matter of waiting until she knew enough of the right words not to run out of them. Then the idea came to her when they were all out one evening at the best Italian restaurant in the city, SP was certain of that. Well you only need to look at the clientele, Greta said. Suzie knew the names of good restaurants the way boys know the names of All Blacks. At SP’s favourite the smiling man who owned it would always hold Suzie’s chair back for her and flip the big napkin across her, making a game of it. Greta said she couldn’t wait for Suzie to grow up, we’re so close already. She’s fine as she is, SP said, and when her mother couldn’t see, he winked at her with the eye closest to her. If it hadn’t been for Covid, she already would have seen more of the world that most folk do in a lifetime. The idea that came to Suzie in the Italian restaurant, was that she would make it a surprise for them at Christmas. She would think of a way to show them everything she had learned.
When she lay down in bed and there was only the shaded light and the softly luminous circles on the ceiling that showed her where the planets flew round the sun, Suzie knew she was different now from other nights in her life. She was so busy. That was a strange word wasn’t it, suddenly to feel? The next time Gucci and Molotov were having such fun together in the park, Suzie told Dale that just in the last few days she had said “The girl from Zaire” and “The boy from Khartoum” as she put the jelly people in the jar, and said her red drawing pins were in the places where her father went and advised people how to dig more cleverly for what was under the ground. And Dale said you can tell me again about Risorgimento if you feel like it, that’s the one I like best. So while the bichon and the bitzer raced about, Suzie told her friend the words she so wanted to know, and knew them off after hearing them just once. She could not believe things to eat could sound so nice. She sometimes thought of them as she went to sleep.
But Suzie was sad when she watched how unhappy her parents were because of Covid, and couldn’t go to other countries to ski or do their shopping, and noticed there were more pictures on the walls at home, the ones you had to call paintings which meant no one else in the world had one like it apart from yourself. Even the colours depress me, Greta said, when SP brought home these droopy birds standing on a rock that he said cost an arm and a leg, which for the quickest second made Suzie think of the jelly people. Dale explained to her in the dog park that discretionary spending had to go somewhere, it would buy dogshit if there was nothing else to spend it on.
Paintings aren’t dogshit, Suzie said.
I didn’t mean your paintings, Dale said, I’m only telling you what I heard. She knew she had hurt her friend and tried to make up for it. She told her and was ashamed even as she said it, that Gucci was so lovely it made Molotov look the mongrel he was. Then to make things happier again she said how her dad had said at least more Republicans die of Covid in America. Darwin would like that.
Who’s Darwin? Suzie said.
And for the first time since they were friends Dale said the word only grown ups were allowed to. Fucked if I know, Suzie. The girls pushed each other and couldn’t stop laughing and the dogs ran up to them because they were jealous, pawing at them, barking.
Then they weren’t allowed to meet because of Level 3.
Never mind. Girls of ten know their own minds better than they are given credit for. Suzie tried to understand better all the things Dale had taught her, although once when she chanced on a channel where a man was saying some of the same things as her friend, when Greta came into the room and snapped the TV off and said we’ll have no more of that if you don’t mind. She smiled to herself though thinking of what a surprise her present would be for them at Christmas. How proud they’d be of her. And at least the girls could keep talking on their phones. Dale would tell Suzie who the bad people were to be careful with on the News, the fat untidy man called Boris and Scomo in Australia, and Suzie, because her friend so asked her, would say again the words that for some reason Dale loved to hear. Saltimbocca and putanesca. Some of the French restaurant words were even nicer. But Dale cried when she heard her family weren’t going camping this year in Coromandel, and Suzie was quiet when her friend asked what about you? She didn’t like to say that Greta had gone to bed with a migraine the night SP explained there’d be no nice island with palm trees like you see on posters this year, and he even got angry, and said you might have noticed, petal, the whole festering world is closing down? It’s not just you.
Then Dale said how she was saving money she got for shopping for people who were old and too hunched up to go out for themselves, and an auntie who was bald would you believe it, paid her ten dollars just to call in and talk to her three afternoons a week. Ten dollars each time, she meant. And it was alright because auntie was in the family bubble. She was saving every cent to give her mum and dad a present they’d never think of in a hundred years.
Then at last it was Xmas. After they had all kissed each other and Suzie opened her present which was a watch with twinkly stones along its sides, and Greta said with a hug, it mightn’t matter to you now Suzie but it is a Cartier, and SP rolled his eyes. Then she took her parents by their hands and led them upstairs to her room that no one had been allowed into for the past weeks. The first thing they noticed was a big flag made from red paper that was on the wall above her bed, and the thick black writing on it, “Action Now!!” And the letters she had copied from a book, “Nga tangata, nga tangata, nga tangata.”
Jesus Christ, SP said quietly, and Suzie thought it was because of Xmas.
First then, she said, and put her hand on the big bowl of human looking lollies. I know them all as individuals she explained, holding one up and then another, Manos from the Philippines, Lola from the Congo, the twins from Kabul, when two lollies were stuck together. This one’s Syrian, she said, you know where that is? Everyone of them, she said. We help make everyone of them skinnier every time we eat too much. Bet you didn’t know that?
Then she moved to the map of the world above her desk. Even standing tip-toe on the desk it hadn’t been easy to attach it with Sellotape, that’s how big it was. And sprinkled with red drawing pins. You’ll never guess, she said. Everywhere there’s a red pin is where people dig holes for coal and things the way you’re clever enough to tell them where, SP. And then she pretended to cough and cough and leaned right over as if she was going to be sick, before she stood up and grinned at them. Only her father looked as if his face had turned into wood and Greta said, you’re old enough now not to call your father that, Suzanne. That was just a game we played.
They really didn’t like her present, did they? But she’d rehearsed it so she simply had to go on. She pointed to the double sized pin in the big fat emptiness of Australia, which made her think of a whale, and here we were, an eel swimming in the ocean beside it. But she didn’t say Uranium as she meant to because even Dale hadn’t explained it very well.
She couldn’t stop now could she, before the end? She shifted the paper screen from in front of the little Chinese money tree in its copper pot, that grew on a table near a window. Its leaves had been juicy and plump and deep green, but weeks ago she had clipped its roots and before she led her parents to her room she had poured a jug of hot water into its pot. So what she now revealed to them was a steaming plant with dying shrivelled leaves and water spilling over them the way the ocean in the islands does when it kills off trees.
Dear God! Her mother sobbed out loud. His father put his arm round her shoulder and stroked her hair.
It was sad for both of them, that Suzie and Dale weren’t allowed to see each other ever again, however much Gucci and Molotov missed each other. And nor would Dale have the chance to tell her best friend about her giving her mum and dad the Christmas voucher for a special restaurant once Covid was over. And when mum brought back the menu because she had asked her to, she read the words out loud and they were like a poem, and with the money that was left from what she had saved, Dale bought herself a dictionary, so she could taste them twice over. And dad said how touched they were that she had thought up their present by herself, it was really kind of her, and kindness meant so much. He said the waiters meant well though they cringed and fawned a bit for his liking. But he didn’t tell her that wog tucker might take a bit longer to get used to than she might think.
Vincent’s story marks the final short story at ReadingRoom for 2021. We resume the Saturday series in 2022 with stories by Damien Wilkins, Emma Neale, Barbara Else, Kotuku Nuttall, Fergus Porteous, Elizabeth Smither, George Mandow, Isabel Haarhaus, Michael Morrissey, Thom Conroy, and Owen Marshall; we welcome submissions, accept about 30 per cent, and the fee is $200, with thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand. Many thanks to all the writers whose work has been published throughout 2021. A selection of four or five of the best stories will appear over the summer break.