Short Fiction ~ Rachel J. Fenton
A Road Closed sign prevented Patricia from driving to Ruia’s house. She parked up outside the old church – the only other old building left – and walked the couple hundred yards back to the junction and down to Ruia’s house, her bag banging her left knee every other step.
Ruia never answered the first knock - but after Patricia hammered the dimpled yellow glass with the side of her fist, the familiar click and drag of Ruia’s walker heralded her approach and Patricia watched her coming into view like an image in a Kaleidoscope.
‘What you got to smash the door like that for?’ For all she was slow on her feet, Ruia was quick with her tongue.
‘Don’t exaggerate.’ Patricia pulled at her tunic to get some breeze through.
‘Not for want of trying.’ Ruia adjusted her walker. ‘Well, are you coming in, or did you just come to smash my antique glass?’
‘You should open the door sooner, you know it’s me at this time, then I wouldn’t have to worry about you.’
‘I thought you weren’t coming.’
‘The road was closed. When did you last leave the house?’ Patricia took a deep breath.
‘Well, my hallway isn’t closed; what are you still dawdling outside for, giving the neighbours something to gawk at?’
Patricia gave her tunic another tug as she waited for Ruia to make way and said,
‘I’ll leave this door open, let some air in?’
‘No, I don’t want my neighbour’s cat in again.’
‘Can I open a window then?’
‘Does it still stink?’
‘I’m just melting, love; it’s twenty-eight degrees today. You must be dying in that frock.’
‘Well, I’m dying in any frock.’ Ruia laughed, pleased to have shocked.
Patricia followed her into the parlour at the back of the house, where she’d set up a day bed at the last visit.
‘How are you finding it?’
‘Bloody slow.’ Ruia rubbed at a stain on her fingernail.
‘I meant the day bed.’
‘Oh. Well.’ She looked out the window. ‘It saves my legs but,’ her voice trailed off.
Patricia looked over Ruia’s shoulder, to where a woman was hanging like a kite from a high branch on the kauri in the neighbour’s section. She had attached red ropes to the top branches. She said,
‘She fills the section.’
‘She was there before they put up the fences.’
‘She’ll do some damage if she comes down in a storm.’
‘Not as much as she’ll do if they cut her; every tree in this neighbourhood will die if they kill the mother.’
Patricia wanted to point out that there were no other trees left in the neighbourhood but instead she said,
‘I’ll close these curtains for now, else we’ll give her a view of you changing your frock from her crow’s nest.’
‘Why do I have to change?’
‘Why do you want to be wearing winter clothing on a day like today?’
‘It’s not winter, it’s got flowers, see?’ Ruia pointed to the print, all blue except for a bloom at the back that was changing colour the way real hydrangeas do in the wrong soil.
Patricia opened her bag, put on blue latex gloves.
‘We match,’ she said. She stopped smiling when Ruia planted herself on the bed.
‘I’ve got a cotton frock in the laundry cupboard,’ Ruia said.
Patricia liked looking at the photographs in the stairwell, of Ruia smiling in upside-down teacup-gowns with feather trims that gave her the appearance of a fairy missing her tree.
She opened the linen cupboard. The dress was folded neatly under a teacup. Each had orange flowers, neither appeared out of place.
‘What took you so long?’
‘Your photos. You were beautiful when you were young.’
‘Well, it’s a wonder I haven’t died of old age waiting for you.’
Patricia laughed. ‘Let’s get you changed, eh?’
‘I think you’ve more interest in my frock than her up that tree.’ Ruia smiled, pleased to have shocked again.
Patricia was glad for the timing of the chainsaw’s din as she wiped Ruia’s skin.
‘I’m being as gentle as I can,’ she said. ‘There. Now, do you want me to make you some tea and you can have it outside while I get tidied up?’
Ruia stared at her frock, twisted a bit of the hem. The flowers seemed to close then come alive all over again. Patricia ushered her into the back garden and settled her at the rusty bistro set.
‘It’s cold,’ Ruia said.
‘It’ll warm up,’ Patricia said, looking at the tree.
She could see Ruia while she filled the kettle, and beyond her, the small figure of the tree surgeon working her way through the kauri, cutting each roped section then lowering it to where another person pushed the smallest parts through a chipping machine, out of sight but for the spray of orange mulch that arced above Ruia’s head. As the machine bit each new branch, Patricia saw Ruia flinch. After she changed the bedding, she made the tea in the cup and carried it out.
‘Aren’t you having one?’
Patricia pushed the cup towards Ruia so that the handle was easy for her to reach, and said,
‘I couldn’t find your crockery. Besides, I’ve only paid for an hour’s parking.’
Ruia shrugged. ‘I’ll show you out.’
‘You enjoy your cuppa.’
‘I can’t enjoy anything with that racket.’ She gripped her walker and gestured towards the remains of the tree with her teacup.
‘It’ll let more light into your back.’
‘Birds have nowhere safe to land.’
Patricia followed her. From the front door, Ruia threw Patricia an expression from one of the photographs.
‘Let me.’ Patricia manoeuvred the walker then noticed the teacup, then others either side of the path among flowers overrun with grasses. She turned in time only to see the cat run through the open doorway and the small figure in the bright frock like a piece of stained glass falling away from the frame.
Rachel J Fenton is a working-class writer from the north of England, now living in Aotearoa New Zealand. She won the University of Plymouth Short Fiction Competition, came second in the Dundee International Book Prize, has been shortlisted for the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was recently nominated for the Best Small Fictions Anthology.