THE WOMAN, THE GIRL
Dinah’s heart always dropped before the plane started its descent. If she was by the window she’d see the flat land and the Alps and something in her would die. Everyone in Auckland had forgotten about Christchurch but she wasn’t allowed to. Every Friday she’d send an email to her boss asking if he needed her to go back the following Monday and every week he’d say yes – for nearly six years. There was a shortage of engineers and still a backlog of assessments that needed doing – redoing in most cases. In the first flurry when it looked like there would be insurance and government funding, engineers had been quick to respond and promise but belts were being tightened, rules changed, goal posts moved. Most of the red zone was empty fields now, just the trees left to hint at anyone ever having been there, but there were some people who wouldn’t leave, couldn’t leave, weren’t getting a pay-out and they applied again and again for another assessment. So while the Christchurch engineers who worked for the big engineering companies built performing arts centres and bank buildings and playgrounds, Dinah flew down week after week to reassess people’s houses while they stood anxiously by, watching her every move. Pointing out cracks and leans in the desperate hope she would write something down that meant someone would help them.
It was awful work. For most of her career she’d worked by herself or with other engineers, but there were always people in the houses. People who wanted to tell her about their lives and their houses and what they’d read on the internet. She would nod and nod and try to pretend they weren’t there, that she wasn’t there, that she was back in Auckland working on the cycle-lane or the extensions to St Lukes and not in these small, drafty houses, in the humid mug of the Norwester summer that Christchurch was sweltering into.
‘It’s only November,’ one of the other engineers had said.
‘Global warming,’ the mother with the three-year-old on her hip said, like it was the next thing. ‘Waitangi Day.’ ‘Easter.’ ‘Global warming.’
Dinah said nothing. She got out her phone and took pictures. The people were the worst.
There had been complaints. Not that her company worried about the people in the houses. Her company worried about EQC, who controlled the contract. But there were complaints. People did not like Dinah. ‘The woman,’ people would say on the phone to EQC. ‘That woman was rude.’ Dinah was the only woman at her firm. ‘Dinah,’ her boss would say when EQC rang him. ‘Dinah is the woman.’
To begin with, six years ago, her boss had asked her, ‘You see why it’s so perfect?’ and Dinah had looked at the aerial image on the screen behind him and saw that it was very much un-perfect. Possibly the furthest from perfect it could be. There was a tiny party inside her when she saw the suburb that was at the root of all her troubles, all her dreadful memories, the suburb that had caused it all, in rubble, but the party dispersed abruptly when she saw it on the screen.
‘Beckenham?’ she said.
Her boss nodded, smiled, ‘See how perfect it all is?’ He meant for making money. He meant for a contract with a government organisation which couldn’t fail. He meant for business. See how perfect it all is for business?
There was a block in the red zone, two blocks really, if a block was the smallest area that is surrounded by streets – which Dinah assured them it was – that she’d assessed four times to make sure the houses there were still in the red zone and they were, and now it was empty fields of high grass except for one house, which seemed fine. No matter what she said about it they wouldn’t buy it back. EQC had promised a lot of money to a lot of people and the money was running out. But Dinah didn’t need to tell anyone that – that could just stay in the room with the engineers and the people from EQC. There was no one left in the house, the owner and his family were staying in a garage in Waltham. They didn’t want to live in the house even though the house was fine. They were frightened and kept applying for reassessment. They were the only house left. She tried to explain this in her report, the fact there were no services, no neighbours, the water only ran occasionally, the sewage was dodgy. She wrote it in the report, mainly so she wouldn’t have to go back, but the house itself was fine, which the owner adamantly disagreed with so he kept applying for reassessment and then waiting for months in the garage in Waltham for Dinah to reassess it. EQC wouldn’t pay Dinah’s company until the owner stopped applying and the owner wouldn’t stop applying.
So here she was again. Getting off the plane, walking across the tarmac, entering the new part of the airport that felt like a mall. The people in the car rental place knew her.
She hated all of it. She’d left for a reason. She couldn’t explain to anyone at her company why she’d left, because women were emotional and odd and all the reasons she could give for leaving sounded emotional and odd and, really, what she needed to do, what had worked so far, what would probably keep working, she was sure, was for her to make it very easy for the other engineers to forget the whole ‘Dinah is the woman’ thing.
She drove straight there. There was no point in putting it off, she drove past the mall, what the fuck would she do? Go to the mall. She hated the mall. It was still standing. She hated everything that still stood and everything that had been flattened.
To begin with there’d been cordons. She’d had to show her ID but no one really cared now. A couple of the shops she passed were burnt out. The grass was high. She looked down at her phone which was beside her on the passenger seat. If it was a movie, a ghost movie say, she would notice now, the address, the address at the root of all her problems. There would be a jump cut into an extreme close-up. But she’d realised it was the house, her childhood house, as soon as her boss had emailed her the job a year and a half ago, and all she’d felt was a sinking resignation. Would no one like to stay for the cake? Look at Dinah, she’s almost walking? This was how her life always went. Ever since the earthquake anyway. Christchurch was small and she’d lived there for a long, long time. Often she knew the people in the houses she assessed. Often they’d gone to school together. And often she’d rented the houses that were falling to bits. Before the earthquake it had been okay, she never thought about Christchurch, but now she never saw her kids and her husband was never home when she called from the motel. ‘Why would he be?’ her mother had said. You can’t expect a man to wait around for a woman. The woman she was talking about was Dinah. Dinah was the woman.
She pulled up outside the wooden gate that said ‘No Unauthorised Access’. She was authorised but all the gates were permanent now and the roads were pretty much gone. She parked her car, grabbed her phone and walked over the grass and under some trees across the wide open overgrown space that used to be a suburb. We don’t even leave a trace, she thought. Thank Christ. The house stood completely by itself. She walked up the driveway and none of it came back to her – it never did. ‘It’s all coming back to me,’ her mother had said when they’d come to Christchurch for her aunt’s funeral. Dinah refused to let any of it come back to her. All of it could just stay where it was thank you very much. She got out her phone and started taking photos as the house fell into its structural elements. That’s all it was shear and bending carrying force to the ground.
She was inside before she realised. Following the line of the house, checking the frames, looking up at the ceiling. Walking round and round. A couple of walls had been taken out, to open it up she suspected. People liked old places because they had good bones but they always wanted more room – there was nowhere in an old kitchen to put a food processor. Dinah imagined her mother had never even heard of a food processor. Their TV had been tiny and over there, not in the centre of the room where the faded rectangle of the LCD rang out. The families had been allowed back in for hours at a time to get valuables. A couple of windows were broken in the house and the wind had blown in leaves and plastic bags and junk mail.
The girl was sitting on the floor of the bedroom and didn’t look up when Dinah came in. Dinah hadn’t knocked because no one was supposed to be there but the child didn’t worry her, she just needed to look at the walls inside the cupboards.
‘I just need to look at the walls inside the cupboards,’ she told the child, remembering the customer service training and the complaints. The girl didn’t look up from what she was doing and Dinah didn’t look at her for long. The walls were fine, like they always were. Dinah went to leave. The bedroom door was shut now, and she opened it with one hand while looking down at her phone. The hall felt wrong even before she looked up, and when she did look up she found it wasn’t the hall at all but the bedroom she’d just left. The girl on the floor, the cupboard, the windows out to the same part of the garden she’d just looked at. Dinah looked behind her, the door was shut again and she opened it and was again in the bedroom. She opened the door again and stood with one leg either side of the threshold. She couldn’t look at both rooms at once but as she looked from one side to the other the same room was on both sides, the same stretch of garden, the same girl doing the same thing in both rooms. It wasn’t a mirror image – right wasn’t left – which upset Dinah most of all.
‘Excuse me,’ she said, and walked past the girl into the original bedroom, toward the window, which she was sure she could climb out of. She opened it but before both her legs were through the window she realised there was no joy to be found there either. She stood in the third room, or was it the fourth? Or was it a new room every time she’d opened the door? In this, the room on the other side of the window looked the same as the original room and the room where the hallway used to be. The door was opposite her, which was where it was in the other rooms but felt odd because of her method of access. She opened that door just to check and as she suspected the girl was on the floor and the garden sat in the sun. She looked behind her and tried to look behind that at the other room and the other one. She didn’t remember the house being this way. Perhaps the renovations had been more extensive than she thought. The window was north-facing, which didn’t help because it was north-facing in all the rooms. She walked through the rooms for about half an hour, through doors, back through doors, through windows, the cupboard was always shut, in one of the rooms she pulled the doors off and broke through the wall, the hole was tiny but as she peered through, there was the girl and the window. A bird flew past. The sun was setting. She stayed in the room with the broken wall for a while. Broke the window, the room was behind it. Pulled up carpet and then floorboards. The room was there. No matter how many times she saw her, Dinah couldn’t work out what the girl was doing. She had her hair in pigtails and was wearing what Dinah now realised was her old school uniform. Was it her?
‘Dinah?’ she called out in one of the rooms. The girl didn’t look up. ‘Michelle?’ she tried her sister’s name but the girl kept wiping her hands back and forward. It was like that, the movement. Dinah went up through the roof in one room and found the girl hanging above her on the floor. She had a better view from here and could see the girl was wiping the carpet. Back and forward. As the sun went down Dinah could sometimes hear the static click of the synthetic fibre against the friction of the girl’s hand.
‘Excuse me,’ Dinah shouted up at the girl. ‘Excuse me. Can you stop that?’
The girl looked down at Dinah for the first time.
‘This?’ she said and wiped her hand over the carpet to demonstrate.
‘Yes. I’m stuck,’ Dinah motioned toward the room she was in and the room the girl was in. ‘Can you stop?’
The girl nodded and at the same time lifted her hands up above her head.
Dinah looked behind her and there was nothing but ceiling recess. Dust and mouse shit. Some cobwebs. She leaned back into the room. ‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I think that’s done it.’
‘You're welcome,’ said the girl.
‘Can you just give me time to get out before you start again?’
The girl nodded.
Dinah backed up in the low space between the ceiling and the roof. Then she crawled back again. ‘Do you want to come?’
‘Where?’ said the girl. She’d been looking out the window, her hands still above her head.
‘Outside,’ Dinah said. ‘With me?’ She hadn’t really thought about that.
The girl scrunched her face up like she was considering it. ‘Nah,’ she said. ‘Nah. I’m good.’
‘Okay,’ said Dinah. ‘Just give me five minutes. You know. Before you start the whole carpet thing again.’
‘Sweet,’ said the girl.
Once outside, Dinah checked the front of the house. It needed to come down. It was slipping into the ground on one side – finally. She hated Christchurch so much. Wanted to be finished. Wanted to be back in Auckland, where everyone had forgotten about Christchurch. It was a hellhole.
Pip Adam is the author of the short story collection Everything We Hoped For and the novel I'm Working on a Building. She facilitates writing workshops at the International Institute of Modern Letters and Arohata Prison, and is the host of the podcast Better Off Read.
Pip writes: ‘The Woman, the Girl began life in the Kahini Colliding Worlds workshop run by Anna Smaill on December 3 and 5, 2015 during which Shreyasi Majumdar, Maria McMillan, Cherllisha Silva, Anna Smaill, Chris Gilman, Sian Robyns, Kirsten LeHarivel and I wrote the outline for a ghost story collaboratively. This story would not have been possible without this workshop and these people.’