Somebody came in the night and took all four wheels from the next door neighbour’s car. The rest of the vehicle is left balanced uneasily on four piles of bricks. Every morning for a week, I am woken by her voice on the street, saying loudly to anyone who will listen, ‘Look what happened to my car! Can you believe it? Why would somebody do that to me?’
Next, the front of the vehicle is gone – the bumpers, the number plate, the headlights, the hood. The insides of the car are left behind, bared to the world, like teeth and gums that have had their lips ripped away from them. This time, there is no shouting from the neighbour. I am woken instead by the wind pulling her black plastic rubbish bin from her doorstep, scattering its contents across the concrete of her path, and banging down the steps onto the road. Trucks screech and honk at it until it blows back onto the pavement again. The neighbour stays inside, her curtains closed.
I have nothing to do with my day, so I decide I will walk. The doctor told me to walk every day, ‘To look after your heart.’ Today he would probably say something even more patronising, like, ‘Be realistic. You’re past the point in your life where you can go out in this sort of weather.’ But he isn’t here. I put on my waterproof coat and the red scarf that a young woman once complimented me on in the supermarket.
I thought that the wind might make me feel more alive. Instead it brings more banging, and then rain. I feel small and wet and rather blind. The heavy water floats sideways through the air like white curtains, and the trees shake themselves into a blur.
I see four new slips within two blocks of my house. Rocks, clay, dirt, and plants have come rumbling down hills onto the roads, like they’re trying to claim them back. This has been happening for months; it feels like the whole city is falling apart. Not all of the slips are giant catastrophes – some are just three rocks and some dirt, with one orange traffic cone put on top of them, almost jokingly warning traffic of the tiny intrusion. Others are hunks of some once-high-up garden, with plants still clinging to clumps of soil, their roots holding onto nearby rocks and other plants. Sitting on the tar-sealed road, they are so clearly broken parts of somewhere else that it is uncomfortable to look at them.
I focus on my feet instead. There is plenty to step over – crushed milk bottles, tissues, dirty nappies, and half-rotted food escape from other people’s rubbish bags and join the wet lumps of dog poo that punctuate the pavement.
When I look up again, everything thin seems to be wearing a blue bow-tie – the street signs, the lower branches of trees, the metal rings around the bottoms of power poles, the stalks holding up people’s mailboxes. They are pale blue plastic with white polka dots. Some of them are accompanied by wet pieces of paper, with all the writing dripping down as if melted, saying: ‘Neighbours – please pick up your dog’s poo!’ I untie a bow-tie and discover it is a small plastic bag. I tie the bag back onto the street sign again, just in case whoever put it there is watching.
A collarless dog approaches from the other direction, its long hair darkened by water and plastered against its skin. I shrink into my wet self even further, afraid that it will attack me in this strange daytime version of darkness. Instead, it stops and digs its nose into a small heap of rubbish, eats something brown and squishy, and licks its lips. It takes a few more steps, then bends and bites into a tampon that has swollen with dirty rainwater. I have emptied plenty of bins full of tampons before and I’d like to think I’m relaxed about that sort of thing, but my teeth squeak as I imagine the synthetic scrape of it in the dog’s mouth. I hope that the tampon was used by whoever put those dog-poo bags everywhere, and that now they are watching out of their window, squirming. I turn and walk home again, smiling.
I don’t hear the dog following me, over the blurred sound of rain and my own dependable steps, but when I stop to check my mailbox, I catch its movement in the corner of my eye.
‘Go away,’ I whisper, but it doesn’t.
There are three damp fliers in my mailbox, despite the ‘No Circulars’ sign. I take them inside with me and close the door before the dog can follow me in. I can see the slumped outline of the dog through the fogged glass window for an hour or two, as I make tea and watch TV, and then it is gone.
In the night I am woken by a howling sound, much louder than the wind has ever been before, and far more human than the screeching brakes of a truck. I pull back the curtain and look out at the street. The trees are still and there is no traffic as far as I can see in either direction. All of the neighbours have their lights turned off. I absorb the stillness for a while and then go back to bed.
When I wake up in the morning, there is sunshine on my face, coming through the curtains that I didn’t close properly in the night. The day is still and bright. I look across to where my car is parked, behind the strange lipless balancing act that belongs to the neighbour, and see that my front and back tyres are flat. I pull on yesterday’s still-damp clothes and go out for a closer look. The tyres on the side of the car that I couldn’t see are flat too. All four tyres have long gashes in their rubber, which droop like sneering mouths. I stand and stare silently. I can suddenly understand the neighbour’s need to shout every morning for a week.
I hear a whimper that sounds like a noise I could be making, but which doesn’t come from me. In the grass, I see the dog. It has dried overnight, and its hair is a dirty golden colour now, it looks much softer. The dog is coiled around a gash of its own, across its side, where blood has turned the hair to brown-red dreadlocks.
I go inside and get my phone, my wallet and some towels, then call a taxi and go back to the dog to wait.
‘I’m sure you’ll be fine,’ I tell the dog, standing beside it, too nervous to bend and touch it, ‘If you were a human, you’d be fine. People get cut all the time and then heal up again. I’m sure it’s the same for dogs.’
I see the taxi coming, wave it to a stop, open the back door and start laying towels on the seat.
‘We don’t allow pets in our vehicles,’ the driver tells me over his shoulder.
‘This isn’t my pet,’ I say, ‘I think it’s a stray dog.’
He laughs. ‘Well, I definitely don’t take stray animals!’
‘Look,’ I gesture at my car, ‘someone slashed my tyres, I’m not getting anywhere without your help. And they slashed this dog, too – it’s dying, this is an emergency.’
He sighs and drums his fingers on his steering wheel but says nothing.
‘You're probably not really dying,’ I whisper to the dog, in case it was worried.
I was planning to ask the driver to get out and lift the dog – he is younger than me, and probably stronger – but I think I need to just get it into the car before he changes his mind and drives away without me. I bend and wrap the last towel around its body and lift it, very heavy and very warm but unprotesting, and lay it on the seat. I close the back door and open the passenger door, but the driver holds his hand up to stop me climbing in.
‘Uh uh,’ he says, ‘That animal has no seatbelt on. You’re gonna sit beside it and make sure it doesn’t get up or fall down.’
I get into the backseat and put my belt on. The dog lies limply at my side.
‘Any mess, fleas, blood, or whatever left in my taxi when you guys get out, there’s a $500 fine,’ the driver says. He reaches back to point at a sign about fees, most of which I can’t read without my glasses. ‘And if that dog gets rowdy, I’m pulling over and you’re both getting out.’
‘Okay,’ I say, still just looking at the dog, jumping a little whenever it moves its legs or head.
We come to a queue of traffic held up by an orange-vested man with a long-stalked ‘STOP’ sign.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake!’ the driver says. He doesn’t come fully to a halt, but instead inches forward, closer and closer to the car in front, pumping his foot on the clutch.
‘It looks like another slip,’ I say, peering out the window at the cliff-face with its new brown streaks, like someone has gouged channels into the grass with giant fingernails. ‘There have been so many since the earthquake. The heavy rain is making it worse.’
‘Nah,’ he says, ‘I saw an article in the news that said there haven’t been more slips than usual. People are just getting all frantic about it because of the earthquake happening. And because of social media, more people are aware of the slips, and more people are reporting them and telling their friends they saw them. But there aren’t really more slips.’
I guess it’s a good idea not to let people panic. Things fall apart even quicker when people are scared or angry. Every time there’s a slip, the orange men and women come out in the early morning and mark the blockages with cones, guide traffic slowly around, sweep up the slip and cart it away in trucks, leaving only a slightly muddy patch of road and a scarred cliff face to prove that it ever happened. They seem to have convinced the taxi driver.
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘okay.’
The man turns his sign to say ‘GO’ and the driver waves a curt thank-you as we pass him. We ride in silence the rest of the way to the vet.
‘Oh, he’s just gorgeous!’ the receptionist exclaims when I carry the dog in and put it on a chair in the waiting area. My lower back twinges when I straighten up. She looks at the dog again, and says, ‘Oh, sorry – she! She’s beautiful.’
‘She?’ I say. ‘Oh. Well, she’s been cut. They slashed my car tyres, too. Do you think she’ll be okay?’
‘Is she yours?’ the receptionist asks. ‘You haven’t been here before, have you? We’ll need you to do some paperwork and register with us.’
‘No, she’s been wandering my street all week, I think – there’s been poo everywhere, anyway. I found her this morning, with the cut. What will happen to her?’
‘Well, there’s no collar and registration tag, so we’ll check for a microchip. If there’s nothing, we’ll refer her on to the SPCA and they’ll advertise to try to find the owners. They’re very full at the moment, so they have a seven-day policy, I believe.’
‘A seven-day policy?’
‘Seven days looking for the owner before they put the dog down.’
I look back at the dog. She seems smaller, like she understands.
‘I’m sure you’ll be fine,’ I tell her, unconvincingly.
‘You’re sure about this?’ the vet asks for a third time, even though I’ve already paid the ridiculous bill. ‘She’s going to need fairly constant supervision. When the cut starts to scab over, it will itch, and you need to be on guard to make sure she doesn’t scratch or bite her stitches out, or rub them on the carpet or furniture or anything like that.’
‘That won’t be a problem. I don’t work, I’m always home.’
‘And she needs to stay dry for the next week at least. No baths, no rain, no puddles. I’d say keep her inside at all times, to be on the safe side.’
‘I can do that.’
‘And we’re advertising here, for the owners. You should put some posters up around your local area. It’s illegal to take someone’s dog, even if it’s lost, so you’re just fostering her, understood? If her family comes forward, you give her straight back. If a bit of time elapses and you decide to keep her, you’ll be doing adoption paperwork with the SPCA and registration and…’
I look down at the dog. She has had her side shaved down to a rude pink bareness that reminds me of genitals, and they have sewn along the dark red ridge with black string, each stitch tied in a knot. It looks like a row of insects are feasting on her blood, digging their feet into her skin. She has a cone around her neck which makes her head look tiny. Sometimes she looks straight ahead and forgets about it, but then she’ll see it out of her peripheral vision and start rubbing it on the floor and the legs of chairs, trying to get it off.
‘Don’t get too attached, hey.’ He smiles and shakes my hand. ‘But good on you.’
He walks away, disappears into the back room, and I am left with the receptionist and my new foster-dog.
I choose a dog bowl, a collar, a lead, and some food from the display on the waiting room wall and pay the receptionist for those. She helps me cut the packaging with a pair of sharp black scissors, and then I put the collar and lead onto the dog. This time, I phone the taxi company and explain the situation, and the lady says she’ll send a pet-friendly driver.
The driver is young and cheerful.
‘Oh, poor old guy!’ she says, as I lay the towels in the backseat and lift the dog in. For a second I think she’s talking about me.
‘Ah, it’s okay.’
‘I just found her like this.’
‘That’s awful, poor old guy!’ She shakes her head sadly. ‘Can I take a photo of him?’
‘Well, yes, she’s not mine,’ I say, ‘but I can’t see why that would be a problem. What’s it for?’
She seems surprised by the question, and thinks for a second. ‘Just to show my friends, I guess. So they’ll know I drove a cool dog in my taxi.’
She takes a few photos on her phone, and then we drive away.
The traffic is still blocked up at the slip, and we are stopped by a different man with the same sign.
‘This city is freaking me out,’ the driver says. ‘Everything’s falling down. And all those shops in the city centre are still closed – it’s been months, now. Don’t you think it’s spooky that one little shake could make so much difference to our lives?’
‘I don’t tend to go into the centre of town,’ I say, ‘but I definitely don’t like these slips.’
‘Yeah, man. I live in Newtown, and the house is in a bit of a gully, you know? Well, a few weeks back, there was this massive slip, and the road up above fell into our back garden. We were lucky, because our house just happens to be positioned forwards in the section… But we were all in bed, you know, if it had landed on the house we would have been crushed. There was a little porch out the back that got knocked down, and the vege garden’s a goner, not that I was any good at taking care of it anyway.’
‘That is scary,’ I say. ‘How much of the road fell down?’
‘Oh, man, the whole pavement and most of the cycle lane,’ she says, glad to have an avid audience. ‘Big chunks of tarmac, and also pipes and cables and stuff that must have been buried under the road. The worst thing was, though, the tarmac still had the lines painted on it, you know? Like the white line and the yellow dotted line, and the stencil of a bike… Man, that just really freaked me out for some reason.’
‘I know what you mean,’ I say, and realise that I’ve been stroking the dog’s soft ears absentmindedly. ‘Did you move out?’
‘Only while they cleared up,’ she says. ‘We’re back now.’
The man turns his sign around, and we drive carefully around the slip. It is mostly gone.
‘You’re not scared it will happen again?’
‘Oh, no, not really. It didn’t reach the house, like I said. What worries me is that roads can fall down – you could be driving along, and you wouldn’t even know that there was this massive drop underneath you. I’m always having nightmares that the road is collapsing underneath my taxi, and I wake up just as I realise my passengers have died. It’s like something out of a video game in my dreams, though, it’s not realistic – the roads just sort of crumble into nothing.’ She blows air between her lips like a deflating balloon, and rearranges her shoulders to shake off the discomfort. ‘God, sorry, I shouldn’t have said that to you, about the dying passengers, that wasn’t very thoughtful of me.’
‘No, no, I don’t mind,’ I say, but we drive the rest of the way home without talking.
Nobody claims the dog. On the seventh morning of her loud breathing in the corner of my bedroom, I wake to discover that someone came in the night and snapped the wing mirrors on all the cars parked along the road, including mine and what is left of the neighbour’s. Today is the day that the vet said the dog could leave the house, so I clip on her lead and take her across the road to look at the car. My wing mirrors are still attached, but they hang uselessly down now, reflecting the blue sky instead of the road. The neighbour’s wing mirrors must have been easier to break – they lie on the tarmac beside the piles of bricks, with smashed panes like glitter and scratched-up sides.
The dog doesn't like this place; she pulls her head into her shoulders and her ears hang downwards like my wing mirrors. She pulls on the lead and I agree, ‘Yes, you're right, let's go somewhere else.’
And we walk for a while.
Every day we get a little bit further, and it gets a little bit warmer. We go back to the vet to have the dog’s stitches removed and I fill out the paperwork to become her owner. The receptionist asks what her name is, and I say I'm not sure yet. The vet says the SPCA will come around later this week and check whether I have a fence and that my house is safe for a dog. I ask them to make it two weeks instead and call in contractors to start building a fence.
There are five of them, in heavy boots and orange jackets, like the people who fix slips. They spend most of the first week digging very deep holes, filling them with concrete, and standing strong wooden beams in them; trees that will never grow. The dog and I watch out the window and admire how heavy everything is – the earth, the tools, the concrete, the wood. Everything happens slowly; it’s all very reassuring.
On our daily walks, I start to notice the brown scars on the cliffs and hills turning green, the last proof of the slips being blurred away. It isn’t grass or weeds, though – it is paint. The paint isn’t quite the right green to match the wildlife around it, there’s a hint of blue to it. I write a letter to the council.
‘I have noticed that you are spray-painting the mud and rock revealed by slips, turning it green as if this will stop people from realising that anything has happened,’ I write. ‘It is not particularly convincing, as the paint is bright and bluish. I am also concerned that this paint may be damaging what is left of the plant-life.’
I check the mail the next morning to discover a handwritten letter that is not addressed to or signed by anyone.
‘You seem to be building a rather tall fence,’ it says, ‘and I just wish you would have talked to other residents of the area before making that decision. I understand that some unpleasant things have been happening on this street lately – just look at my poor car! – but building an imposing fence just makes it seem much worse. Will everyone now copy you and block themselves off from the street? The sense of community and trust will be gone. It just doesn't seem very neighbourly.’
‘Neighbourly?’ I scoff out loud to myself and put the letter into the recycling bin. ‘Neighbourly,’ I say again.
‘Here, Neighbourly!’ I call, and the dog comes skidding across the kitchen floor towards me, nails scraping and clicking on the tiles. ‘You’re Neighbourly!’ I tell her. ‘Is that okay?’
She digs her nose between my knees, almost pushing me off balance, and wags her tail. Her hair is growing back in the shaved spot, a blonde fuzz that I find far more grotesque than my own dark stubbly cheeks. It pushes out through the soft pink skin and turns her into a rough scouring brush. I pretend not to mind and stroke her anyway.
Out the window, Neighbourly and I see a young guy pacing around my car. We go out to talk to him. He looks too clean-cut to be the one who keeps breaking things, but I’m still suspicious.
‘Hello, sir,’ he says once I’m within hearing distance, ‘do you happen to know who owns this car?’
‘I do,’ I say. I am having to pull Neighbourly with all my strength to get her any closer to the place the cars are parked.
‘She’s not in great shape, is she?’ he says. ‘I guess you’ve just given up on her?’
I’m offended, thinking he means Neighbourly, and take a big breath in, ready to explain that actually I was the one who didn’t give up on her. He starts stroking the car’s bonnet and I realise that he’s talking about that.
‘Well, someone keeps coming in the night and messing with it,’ I say, ‘and I don’t have any off-street parking or anything. A lot of trucks go through in the night, too, because of the landfill being nearby, so they’re sending gravel and mud everywhere and ruining the paintwork… It’s just not a good neighbourhood for a car.’
‘She looks pretty bad,’ he says sadly. ‘I’d like to fix her up. Would you take a few thousand for her? I could tow her to my garage and bring her back to her former glory.’
‘You don’t want that one?’ I tip my head towards the carcass of the neighbour’s vehicle.
‘Nah,’ he says. ‘Is that yours, too? It just doesn’t have the character of this lovely lady.’
He pats the metalwork again.
‘Okay, sure,’ I say, remembering Neighbourly’s vet bill, ‘the car is yours for three thousand, why not? But you’re doing all the registration paperwork in front of me. I don’t want you going off and committing crimes in a vehicle that’s licensed under my name.’
He laughs and nods. ‘Of course.’
There’s a strange sadness to seeing the car winched up onto a truck and carried away on its back. It used to hold me inside it, its metal walls a whole safe world, and now it is so small and vulnerable that someone needs to carry it like a hurt toddler. I say a silent sorry and goodbye inside my head, and then the car is gone, around the corner like every other truck that passes by. I wonder whether that was the last car I’ll ever own.
I get the groceries delivered now anyway, and Neighbourly and I prefer to walk everywhere else. I buy little plastic bags of my own, white ones, and I’ve never had to use one of the blue bow-ties. I don’t think anyone else uses them either; they’re dirty now, and wilted by rain and sunshine. The paper signs have all disappeared completely, dissolved or blown away, but I obey their instruction. Picking up Neighbourly’s poo is a strange mix of horrible and lovely – the soft texture through the thin plastic is like a mouldable stress ball, and on cold mornings or evenings, it is so warm that it almost hurts my fingers. But it is poo and it smells like digested meat. I try not to hold it against her.
It takes weeks for me to get a response from the council. It is in an official council envelope and the letter is typed, but it isn’t signed with a person’s name. ‘We thank you for your concern about the way slips are being dealt with in your neighbourhood,’ whoever it is says. ‘We understand that people can feel frightened and vulnerable after incidents like last year’s earthquake, but we can assure you that the Wellington City Council are doing everything in our power to ensure that the city is prepared and resilient in the face of natural disasters. The majority of the recent slips have been minor inconveniences and have not posed any danger to people or infrastructure. The ‘green paint’ that you mentioned in your letter is, in fact, a polymer that stabilizes loose soil. This is a technology that is now being used around the world to help prevent landslides in areas that may be unstable.’
The next day there is a big slip down the road that lands on somebody's car and flattens the roof down to the height of the headrests, the windows crushed to sharp-textured spider's webs. The workers in orange encircle it with cones but leave it there, under its brown slump of earth, and people come all day to look and take photos. That night, five cars in the same roadside bay have their windows punched in and their contents stolen.
People stop parking on the street. They pour gravel on their front lawns and build fences around them and put the cars inside the fences. New carports and garages are built. Signs go up advertising, ‘Secure off-street carpark available $100/week,’ and then they disappear again, the offer presumably taken.
The neighbour’s car stays in its place across the road. One morning I look over and see that the windows have been smashed in. Next, the radio and speakers have been removed. Somebody spraypaints ‘LIFE IS PAIN’ in giant black letters on the car’s side panel. Rain comes in the empty windows and the seats get wetter and wetter until mould grows on their cream-coloured fabric.
Dirt and plants slip down the hill sometimes and land in piles around the car, ready to be swept away by the orange-vested men, but none of them ever land quite close enough to touch it. It just sits there on its piles of bricks, ugly and used-up, waiting for the day that the always-falling city will swallow it in a mouthful of earth and forget all about it.
Caoimhe McKeogh lives in Wellington and works in community disability support. She is currently writing a novel with the assistance of a New Zealand Society of Authors’ Mentorship. Caoimhe’s poetry and prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Landfall, Overland, Headland, Geometry, Cordite, Turbine, The Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, Meniscus, Salient, Otoliths and Brief.