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Nicole Phillipson

Seals


If Fleur could have had one wish granted, it would be for Bella to meet someone who would take care of her. When she felt optimistic – as she did now, hands in yoghurt-clouded sink water, watching Bella hug the watering can to her chest and lean over the carrots – she felt that this was possible, that her daughter was an infinitely loveable person.

Bella had slopped a little water onto her shin, darkening her navy knee-sock with two fat, blurred slashes. She frowned, sucked in her bottom lip. A chunk of her dark red hair fell from her ponytail and clung onto the collar of her polar fleece.

Fleur looked down at the blackish grime that had collected around the handles of the taps, the flakes of paint that chipped perpetually from the windowsill and stuck to the wet parts of the wall. Her niece, Ruby, was coming to dinner tonight, and Fleur wondered if she would notice these things. Ruby was only eighteen, but her eyes seemed somehow to channel the powerful gazes of the rest of her family.

Gary insisted on polishing Bella’s shoes, although they were running late. She could hear him explaining from the laundry room.

‘Dad! It tickles!’

‘But – you see how I’m doing this?’

The front of Gary’s head was stress-gleamed when she kissed him goodbye. When they had first met, his ruddy hair had burst over his forehead in a shower. Now his pink scalp was the most prominent part of him.

Once her family was gone, Fleur felt the house begin to constrict silently around her. She went back to the sink and took the steel wool out of the drawer, scrubbed slowly at the grime around the taps. Some of it was coming off, but underneath was a discolouration that seemed permanent. The day and approaching evening stretched out before her steeply. Fleur could already see that tonight, she would run out of things to say. There would be many long, sagging silences over the dinner table.

Ruby’s father, Wylan, was Gary’s older brother. Wylan had his own dental practice in Christchurch, and his wife, Becca, was an interior designer. She had designed the kitchen in their cube-shaped house and filled it with sleek black appliances, all curved with rainbows like they were made of oil. Wylan and Becca and their three children spoke with the same loud, jangling voice and used the same ironic, jokey language. They elbowed in front of one another during conversations.

Gary had always disliked their loudness. Better to say nothing than to talk for the sake of it, he said, but Fleur would listen to them and think of how often she found herself searching for words to drop into her house’s spreading pool of silence.

Fleur had this idea that her family was heavy. Her and Bella especially. Gary could be buoyant: he was hardy, like wood. Rousing himself at five am to creak down the driveway for his run, every single morning of the week.

But this heaviness dragged Fleur and Bella downwards. It made them slow-legged. Bella hated sports. She was slow at other things, too. Slow at maths and spelling. Slow to make friends. Had someone to help her at school with reading. Took her time colouring in picture books, but always got them very neat.

Ruby was always smiling down at Bella, pouring her family’s jokiness over her. They’d had her round for tea, her first weekend in Dunedin. Fleur could remember how Ruby had looked standing in the doorway. Thin and bright, wearing a pink-and-red chequered rain jacket, hair frizzing in the wet.

She’d apologised for being hungover, but hungover she was luminous. She ate four scone-halves in rapid succession, spreading them thickly with butter. She told Fleur and Gary wild stories of projectile vomit and law-breaking, while they sat silent around her as though she were a television screen.

Fleur had had to call twice for Bella. When she finally appeared, she saw Ruby and stopped immediately at the edge of the floor rug, her toe burrowing under the tassels. Bella barely spoke to Ruby, and eventually turned away from her to ask Fleur if she could watch cartoons.

But the next day, Bella wanted a fringe just like her cousin’s. She begged Fleur for days to cut it, then, two weeks later, staring at the blunted line in the mirror, seemed confused – not upset, just quietly confused – at the translation of the shape from Ruby’s head to her own.

Ruby’s communication had dropped off entirely after that day. Fleur had imagined her running through the streets, meeting tall rugby players who picked her up and gave her rides on their shoulders to their apartments.

And now, months later, their niece was standing in the door again. She had a little more make-up on than usual, something dark around the eyes. Her smile was unfaltering as she took off her coat, and she bent and ruffled Bella’s hair energetically. Fleur wondered if something good had happened to Ruby. Maybe she had met someone.

Bella crawled closer to her cousin and mumbled, ‘Can I have one of your bracelets?’

She was too old at ten to be mumbling in that way, to be tucking her chin down into her neck like that, but she still did it all the time when it was people outside of their family. She would seize up and go stiff when people were watching, but around their house she would run freely, her soft, dented elbows swinging behind her back.

‘Sure, honey,’ said Ruby, slipping off a bangle and hanging it on Bella’s waiting wrist.

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Fleur, pouring her a wine, ‘I’ll be there in a second. Just these potatoes to do.’

‘I love potatoes! Roast potatoes?’

‘No – mashed.’

‘I love mashed potatoes.’

Bella was sitting there, beside Ruby, waiting for her attention. ‘So, was school fun today?’ Fleur heard Ruby say.

‘No.’

‘How come?’ said Ruby, frowning, tapping the arm of the couch.

‘I hate maths. Miss Lambert sucks.’

‘Whoa,’ said Ruby. ‘That’s some strong language, Bels. Maybe I’ll tell Miss Lambert you’ve been slagging her off behind her back. Should I do that?’

‘No! Don’t!’ Bella began giggling helplessly, a red flush dulling her forehead and cheeks. She sat up on the couch and wriggled closer to Ruby, waiting for more of her love. But Ruby came into the kitchen and hovered behind Fleur, running a hand over their knife holder.

It had in fact been a present from Ruby’s parents: a smooth, red plastic man leaning back, mid-fall, with knives driven into random points on his body. Wylan and Becca had laughed on Christmas Day when Gary unwrapped it, but Fleur hadn’t completely gotten the joke. When she flicked the lights on in the morning, the knifed red man was the first thing she saw, a shining discrepancy between the pale forms of the fruit bowl and the slow-cooker.

Bella had Gary’s jawline, and his wide, flat mouth. When they smiled, their mouths didn’t make perfect crescents but something like a leaf, with the corners flattening out into lines. Sometimes Fleur saw a hardiness in Bella that she knew was not hers but Gary’s, and it made her feel hopeful.

When Gary returned, Fleur saw he had made the usual jump-cut: from fresh, humming with morning anxiety, to slope-shouldered and defensive. It would be about handling him carefully for a while, to avoid any unnecessary fights.

Energy was so easily wasted in violent little flurries over who had slightly dented the wall, or how much she had spent on Bella’s new raincoat, or why Gary had said she was going to come to the work party when he knew she wasn’t capable. Even if they remained calm-voiced, she could always feel the distorted clash under the surface, like she and Gary were magnets that had flipped to repel one another.

‘How’s your day been?’ Gary asked Fleur, fulfilling the first requirement of their routine. He began to pour a wine, very slowly so it didn’t spill.

‘Oh, you know. Finally managed to repair Bella’s dungarees, the blue ones, so that’s good.’

‘That’s good. She likes them.’

He explained to them about the various delays that had made him late. He was sitting diagonally across from Ruby. The expensive gorgonzola Fleur had bought on impulse sat between them, in a perfect, snowy circle. Gary didn’t ever eat before dinner; his rigid mother had taught him to believe devoutly in meal-times.

‘What’s it like being an accountant?’ Ruby was saying. ‘Tell me what you do.’

‘At my last position it was invoices and credits all day,’ he said, ‘but now I’ve changed companies, I have a lot of variety. I mean, it’s probably a bit boring to people who don’t do it…’

Ruby seemed interested, and kept asking questions. Gary warmed under the attention and became unusually talkative. After a while he went upstairs to change, and Fleur went to check the stew. She came back to find that her niece had grabbed her grubby old wallet and was sliding cards out and in.

It was half on Fleur’s lips to say, ‘Don’t. That’s mine.’ Now Ruby had found her driver’s license, and held it under the light, peering at the photograph.

‘You look pretty in this photo.’

Fleur made a quiet, sceptical noise. Ruby continued to rifle through the wallet.

‘You’re in a walking club?’

‘Yes. We walk every Monday.’

‘Do you enjoy that?’

‘It’s a good way to get exercise.’

‘Yeah, true. I think I should start running. D’you think Gary would ever let me tag along with him?’

She kept up this commentary for a while, seeming initially unfazed by their family’s delayed, broken-off responses. Fleur intermittently managed to think of things to ask her, but Ruby’s replies became increasingly hesitant, as though she was being slowly infected by their own shyness.

Over the course of dinner, Bella received three of Ruby’s jangling bracelets. They trembled mid-hand, threatening to slip past Bella’s fingers onto her plate. Bella kept her eyes hard on her cousin the whole time, even as she lifted the fork to her mouth. Fleur thought about how, when she was younger, she had dreamed of having two girls. Dressing them up in frilly dresses. Back then she’d envisioned having a child as like having a walking, talking doll.

At one point, Bella, excited, jumped up to fetch her reading log so she could show Ruby. The bracelets slipped over her wrists and jangled to the floor.

‘Oh no,’ said Bella, ‘oh, no, no.’

She bent down to gather them up, breathing hard. They heard her clanking up the stairs. Ruby reached over and grabbed the wine bottle, topped herself up.

‘The best cure for a hangover,’ she told Bella, who had returned, coated over with shyness again, clutching her fairy-stickered reading log to her chest, ‘is apples and hot chocolate. All day. Nothing else. Make sure you remember that, when you’re my age.’

‘I hate wine,’ said Bella.

‘Me, too,’ said Ruby. ‘But my doctor makes me drink it!’

‘No, he doesn’t,’ said Bella.

‘Aren’t you going to eat any more?’ said Fleur, when Ruby put down her cutlery. Most of the potatoes and meat were left on her plate.

‘Oh, no,’ said Ruby. ‘I’m not too hungry, actually. You know, I got food poisoning a month ago, and I think it’s done permanent damage to my insides.’

‘I’m sure that’s not true,’ said Gary.

‘It was from this kebab shop, this little kebab shop down on Princes Street,’ she said. ‘That gross area with the clearance stores and tattoo parlours and stuff. Well, actually, a lot of parts of Dunedin are pretty gross. Sorry,’ she said quickly. ‘I didn’t mean it like that. But you know? Everyone here looks so sad and tired.’

She had slowly slumped downwards, and was supporting her head at the temples. There was something not right.

‘Do you think so?’ said Gary.

‘I haven’t actually been having a fantastic time,’ said Ruby. ‘I mean, I’ve met lots of people and I’ve been going out to parties and dating and all that, so I should be.’

‘How do you mean?’ Delicately, because Bella was watching, and looking, Fleur thought, almost fearful.

‘It’s been six months,’ said Ruby. ‘It’s spring. It’s getting warmer.’

‘More wine?’ said Gary. He held out the wine bottle, like he was giving milk to a toddler. Fleur tried to shift her chair a little closer to Ruby. It dragged on the rug.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I probably shouldn’t. Sorry.’

Fleur looked at Gary, who was looking awkwardly compacted, his arms tightly shunted against his body, and tilted her head towards Bella.

‘Bedtime, Bels,’ said Gary, standing up at once.

Fleur thought about grasping her niece’s hand, but didn’t move. ‘Are you all right?’ she said instead.

‘My mum only lets me call once a week,’ Ruby said, ‘and I can’t talk to Dad. Do you know what the matter is with me?’ She opened her eyes wide, as if something might show up in them.

Fleur could not think of anything to say. The pool of silence spread back through the house and waited, trembling, for a sound.

‘Oh my God,’ said Ruby, ‘I’m sorry. I’ll leave.’ She got up, swayed.

‘Stay the night, Ruby,’ said Fleur.

‘No,’ said Ruby, ‘You’ve been so kind. I’ll go home.’

‘Please, Ruby, we want you to stay.’

Ruby nodded, sat back down, and rocked slightly on her chair. Fleur felt that with every second she remained at the table, she was making the space between them larger.

She went upstairs and started to make up the pull-out bed. Ridiculously, as she looked around at the mildewed, plastic outdoor chairs and the broken vacuum cleaner, she was worried what Ruby would think. She went and found some sheets to drape over them.

*

Ruby came down in the morning and croaked, ‘Thank you so much for having me to stay.’

She crashed backwards onto the couch with an arm flung over her face. She refused food and drink, and lay watching the TV with a stricken expression.

Gary came home after work and saw her. His expression didn’t change, but instead of resting his briefcase by the door, he kept holding it.

‘What a surprise!’ he said to Ruby. He smiled and nodded, then went upstairs to their bedroom, and Fleur followed.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I just suggested she stay without thinking. It’ll just be for a couple of days. She’s so polite.’

‘But she’ll expect things,’ he said. ‘All of Wylan’s kids – they take without realising what it means.'

They agreed that Ruby would have to leave by Sunday. That evening they all ate dinner in front of the television. Outside, they could hear the quickening and slowing of the light, ceaseless rain.

In bed, Fleur lay awake. She watched cars going past, each one making a whooshing, gliding noise, its headlights stretching bright diamonds over the tarmac. It was a cold night. Bella was sleeping downstairs in a jumper and a woolly hat. She had to be rugged up to be comfortable enough to sleep, but in the middle of the night she often overheated to a sweaty tumult and woke up crying from nightmares.

Fleur turned to look at Gary. Ruby’s stay, she thought, must feel to him like yet another band had been constricted around them. Gary was an unshiftable stickler for privacy. He liked living inside his routines: morning run, potter in garden, go to work, come home, beer, television, sleep. It was understandable, Fleur thought, but she stared at his slack, alien face and wanted to shove at his unmoving body, shove it onto the floor.

*

Ruby followed her around the house the next day. Fleur gave her some simple tasks to do: Wipe the surfaces of the kitchen. Organise the spice drawer. She remembered how being told to do things helped. When she’d broken up with Will, she had begun to sink down again. The water had begun to slop up and intermittently fill her mouth and nose.

Her best friend at the time, Yasmin, had driven over and picked her up every day for a fortnight, saying, ‘This is pathetic, Fleur.’ She had driven up into the hills while Fleur lolled against the window, like a shop dummy, staring blankly out at the flashing scenery.

Whenever Fleur left the room, Ruby would slowly follow. After Fleur ran out of tasks to give her, she let Ruby sit in the study, chewing the skin around her fingernails and swallowing it, while Fleur did the accounts.

That evening, Fleur called Becca.

‘I just wanted to let you know that Ruby’s staying with us for a couple of days. It’s no trouble; we suggested it.’

‘Why?’ said Ruby’s mother sharply.

‘She’s so good with Bella,’ Fleur said. ‘It’s nice having her around the house.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Becca. ‘Oh, no, I’m so sorry. She’s been – I hope she’s not a bother.’

Fleur wondered how much Becca knew. ‘She’s no trouble at all,’ she said again.

The truth was Fleur was feeling more and more compressed, the longer Ruby stayed. She felt like Ruby was clinging to her leg like Bella used to do, only now she was lugging around a full-sized adult.

After she’d resigned from her job, all Fleur could do was say sorry, silently, to everyone, in everything that she did. She baked muffins and cookies for her family as little sorries. She started sewing beads onto cushions, and decorating the house with apologetic bursts of colour. Gary told her she needed to stop feeling bad about it: it had been a mutual decision.

Ruby drifted upstairs to her room, and Fleur went back to the sink and began to clean the dishes. The surface of the bench, which Gary had re-varnished just last month or so, was melting away. Although when she thought about it, it could have been nearly a year ago.

She recalled a fight. Bella was fretful about school starting again, and had wilfully misunderstood that she couldn’t use the sink. Gary became angry, which was rare. Anger seemed to distend him, like his thin body wasn’t built for the emotion.

Sometimes, in the past, the anger had become too much for him. And sometimes she'd been afraid. But now he always made sure to walk outside, and he would come back in all right.

They had met very late on compared to most people, set up in their thirties by mutual friends. Both entering the cafe expecting the worst. The ceremony had been on a cool, windy April day. They’d given everyone bottles of bubble mixture. Bubbles had floated up and down everywhere, leaving behind rings on the concrete.

That was how it went, always. Up, and down again.

And as you grew older, it continued. That had been the great surprise for Fleur, the curtain drawn back to an empty stage, and she had stood there looking around for some time, sure she was missing something. No, she was still scared, and worst of all she found could not tell her child anything about this. So she put on a smiling mask with Bella and talked only about the rise up.

Ruby came back downstairs. She had changed into heavy leather boots, a large t-shirt and shorts that just peeked out beneath.

‘I think I might go for a run,’ she said.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to rest?’

‘I can’t rest. I’m going for a run. I hope that’s ok.’

She was about to say, ‘But you can’t go out like that, love,’ in a soothing tone, but that was something she’d say to Bella.

‘It’s cold outside,’ she said eventually. ‘Take a jacket?’

‘Nah, I think I’ll just go. See you later. Sorry to be a pain.’

Fleur was about to follow her, and then thought maybe Ruby needed to be alone. She sat on the couch and turned the TV on and off again, making it glow and darken with little hisses. She thought of Ruby running haphazardly down the street, weighted awkwardly by her thick-soled boots.

Until this morning, part of her had still seen her niece as caught in the spilled light from her strong, ductile family. But separated from them, Ruby seemed increasingly delicate and brittle.

Fleur tied on Gary’s sports shoes and walked down the drive. It was a damp, silent day, with clouds bristling over the sky. Last night’s heavy rain showers had pulled blossom petals off the trees, and covered the lawns in wet collages. The buds on the neighbours’ magnolia looked like little flung-back hands.

Gary’s shoes were too big, and her feet shifted back and forth. She thought back to when she was very young, maybe fourteen, and had first realised she couldn’t seem to pull herself up. She had been disgusted by it, then. By how far down you could go. And maybe this was what Ruby was feeling: ‘But there must be some mistake!’

‘Ruby!’ she called. ‘Ruby?’

Maybe Gary was reacting to the way Ruby had been almost stamping her feet and waiting for someone to come lift her out. But why shouldn’t Ruby cry? And scream and fight? Why shouldn’t she try to get back up out of there? It was a horrible fucking place.

Fleur was growing cold. A shabby dog barked at her through a fence, then hurled itself against the palings, so she turned and went back in a different direction.

She found Ruby buried in the bush, just above Gary’s habitual running path. She was sitting on top of the damp, melting leaves, head tipped against a lichened grey tree, her fingers digging in the mud.

‘Ruby,’ Fleur said in sudden, indignant rage, putting a hand on Ruby’s arm. Ruby looked up at Fleur with a blank expression.

‘You can’t sit out here in the cold like this.’ Fleur said each word as if it was a shake of Ruby’s shoulders. ‘You’ll get ill.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Ruby, and burst into tears.

When they got back to the house, Ruby went up to her room and didn’t come down all evening.

Fleur remembered the soft feel of her niece’s forearm, and tried over the evening to retract what she had done with small kindnesses. She came into Ruby’s room with a mug of peppermint tea, and spoke about maybe going for a drive together tomorrow, along the coast. But Ruby said she would rather just go back to the hall.

*

The next morning, Fleur went into Bella’s room, and found her naked. She had scattered the contents of her top drawer over her bedroom. Knotted-together tights and polyprops made a tangled snake on the floor.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘I don’t want to go to school.’

‘Don’t be silly.’

‘I don’t want to,’ Bella screamed.

Don’t yell,’ she said, feeling a stab of taut energy. ‘You’re too old for this. I’ll take you to school naked if I have to. How would you like that? Showing up at school naked? Everyone would laugh at you.’

As always, when her voice became vicious, Bella went cowed. And, as always, Fleur’s anger turned from hot to cold and slippery and unbearable. She went out to the kitchen and found Ruby sitting at the dinner table eating cereal, pale feet kicked up on a chair. She looked fresh and dewy, and smiled blandly at Fleur.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to go on a drive before you go?’ said Fleur again, once Gary and Bella had left. ‘It’s such nice weather. We could go down to the coast. Maybe we’ll spot some seals.’

‘All right,’ said Ruby, and she smiled again.

The sky seemed always to drop lower as you got down from the hills, but when you reached the edge of St Kilda and got sight of the sea, it lifted right up again. Today it was a blank, grey film, but it seemed to be thinning in places. It could yet become a nice day.

‘Look!’ said Fleur, pointing at the sea. ‘The waves are so big.’

She’d always liked watching them evolve: starting off as a heap, then rising, the top starting to fold over, and then eventually collapsing up onto the sand.

‘The sea makes me feel peaceful,’ said Fleur. ‘Even when I’ve been very low, I’ve always found that if I look at the horizon for long enough, I start to feel calmer.’

Ruby sat up and stared hard out the window.

‘I think you’re right,’ she said. ‘I think I feel a bit better already.’

It was windy along the coast, which always made one of the doors whistle. They wound inland and lost sight of the water for a while. Then they emerged again, and saw a line of cars down the side of the road.

‘Hey!’ Fleur spoke over-brightly. ‘They must be here for the seals. See if you can spot any.’

Ruby looked. ‘I don’t see them,’ she said.

They searched for somewhere to pull over. They saw a man and a woman carrying surfboards and jogging along the side of the road. The top of the woman’s wetsuit was peeled down, the arms flapping heavily against her legs. Fleur wondered how she was still managing to jog with all that weight.

‘I see one!’ Ruby pointed once, then again, spearing the air. ‘Another one!’

Fleur found a place to pull over, and they slid down the long grass to the sand. The wind was so strong it blew their hair into their mouths.

Four seals were lying on a tilted slab of rock. Their heads were a dusty brown and their bodies were ebony. Two wriggled around, bunching and stretching their loose, silky skin. Another sat still on the edge. Water crashed and sprayed up around it. And there was one close to them, motionless, on its back.

Ruby walked towards the rock. Fleur followed. The fatty, rotted-seaweed smell of the seals blew over them. The two wriggling seals noticed them and began to drag their bulky bodies away, in hops. But the one on its back didn’t move. Fleur had never been so close to a seal before. The salty stench of it was overwhelming. It looked like it was grimacing, and its long, pale whiskers were twitching with breaths.

‘Is it sick?’ said Ruby.

‘I don’t know.’

Ruby ran around to the low side of the slab and pulled herself up onto it. She walked over to the seal on its back. Fleur was going to tell Ruby to watch out, that seals could be dangerous. But then she felt too tired to tell her that. Ruby was an adult. She could do what she liked. Fleur looked out to the horizon instead.

‘I think it is sick,’ said Ruby. It hadn’t opened its eyes, although she was very close. ‘Seals evolved from dogs,’ Ruby added. ‘Their legs turned to fins. That’s why they can walk. In a sad kind of way.’

‘Is that true?’

Ruby leaned into the seal and reached out. Her fingers grazed its fur. It heaved a bark and twisted to bite at her. Ruby jolted, then leapt backwards off the rock, laughing raucously.

‘Whoa!’ she said to Fleur, and ran down to the water.

Fleur watched her niece running, the way her arms were stiffly held away from her torso. She wondered if everyone’s despair was a different shape, whether in fact all emotions patterned out in a different way on every body and mind, in the same way that perfume releases different versions of itself on different skins.

She wanted, then, to tell Ruby that she never had to leave. That she could stay, and sleep in their spare bed, and they would go for drives like this every day. But she could almost feel the space vibrating between them, and knew all her attempts to cross it would be feeble.

*

They drove back slowly along the coast. The sky had cracked open now, and it was turning the waves blue. If she or Ruby saw a seal, they said to one another other, ‘Look!’ They’d learned how to tell their tear-drop bodies apart from the rocks.

Ruby was tapping her fingertips on the dashboard. It occurred to Fleur that she might like some music, so she fiddled with the knob and something with a deep, thumping bass crackled on. Ruby’s tapping melded to the beat. She was twisting her head back and forth, eyes jumping frantically along the stones. But Fleur thought they had probably left seal territory a while back.

The ads shrilled on harshly, and Fleur muted them.

‘When you started getting low,’ said Ruby, ‘how long did it take for you to get better?’

‘Well,’ Fleur said, ‘it never really got better for me. But that’s just me.’

The sun kept coming through the clouds for just a few moments, illuminating their faces and hands, and then going away again. The road moved them closer to the water and they skated along beside the curving waves. Fleur felt that she wouldn’t mind if they kept driving for a long time.


Nicole Phillipson is a writer, child-minder and hitch-hiker. Her work can be found in Sport and Turbine, and on the Radio New Zealand website. Her first children’s picture book, Lets Take a Walk, was published in 2016.