A great brouhaha was not necessary in order to sell one’s house. That’s what my mother told the real estate agent Claudia Button, when Mrs Button came to see her that very first Saturday afternoon.
I was at the bottom of the stairs, round the corner from the big lounge, trying to find out what was going on. Ear-wigging, Mum would call it. Brouhaha was a new one to me. Weird, even for my old-fashioned mother. I tried it out in my head first, then said it quietly to myself. Brouhaha. Brou – haha. I giggled and missed hearing what Mrs Button said. She must have disagreed, because the next thing Mum said was, ‘Poppycock, Claudia.’
On my mother went. “I know of people who have sold recently, without a For Sale sign in cooee.”
“Unlikely, Martha,” said Mrs Button.
“Oh yes,” said Mum. “It is likely. In fact, a certain person told me that a complete stranger actually pulled up outside her house, walked up the path, knocked on the door and offered to buy the house there and then. Name your price is what the stranger said, apparently.”
“Really.” This didn’t sound like a question. I guessed that Mrs Button didn’t believe Mum. “Who was this certain person, Martha?”
Mum gave that never-you-mind laugh of hers; I could picture her Doris Plum lipstick creasing into the corners of her tight little smile. “Well, I’m sorry Claudia, but I can’t disclose that. I was specifically asked not to mention it to anyone in real estate. But believe you me, it’s the truth of the matter.”
“And did the sale go through?”
“Yes it did. For a very good price, by all accounts. It was a price made better by the fact that there was no real estate commission to pay.”
“Lucky vendor,” said Mrs Button. I was impressed with her patience. “Have you tried this method yourself, Martha?”
“Method?” asked Mum.
“Yes, this method of selling whereby you just sit and wait for a wealthy person to drive by your house, fall in love with it, and march right on up your path to offer you an amazing amount of money to take it off your hands.”
I wondered what Mum would say to that.
“Yes, yes I have.” She spoke quietly. “I’ve been waiting for just that to happen.”
There was a moment, then, when neither Mum nor Mrs Button spoke. I was tempted to peek around the corner. But Mum got her second wind.
“This is by-the-by, Claudia. Not the point at all.”
“Fine,” said Mrs Button. “Fine. Let’s start again. Is your house on the market?”
“Yes,” said my mother. “For the right buyer.”
“But I don’t want people to know.”
“You won’t sell it if no-one knows.”
Silence from Mum.
“Are we talking about the neighbours here, Martha? Is that what you’re worried about?” said Mrs Button. There was this fluffiness in her voice, followed by a shuffling-of-chairs noise. Then one of them blew her nose. Mum. Even the sound of that was antique.
“Well it’s none of their business, what’s happening. Unless they want to buy it, which is hardly likely.”
“You mean, the work that needs doing on it.”
I heard Mum take a big breath. She held it. Then out.
“Oh for goodness sake. No, that’s not what I mean. Have you looked out the window, Claudia? Have you seen the sort of people who live in this part of Karori now? If they pooled all their savings – every last scraped-together cent – they wouldn’t come close to being able to afford it.”
Mrs Button changed her approach. She was good. Really good. “What do you think the house is worth, Martha? Have you had an evaluation done?”
“Well let’s get that underway. I’ll sort it out.”
Another gulpy breath from my mother, then, meekly: “Discretely, of course.”
“Of course,” said Mrs Button. “Meanwhile, if someone comes along looking for… something like this, I’ll give you a call. It won’t hurt, will it. If someone comes along, just to bring them around and show them through.”
Mrs Button walked right on past me on her way out. “Look after your mother, Katie,” she said, without looking at me. But when she got to the end of the hallway, she turned and came back. She sat next to me on the step.
“How old are you now?” she asked. She had nice green eyes.
“Thirteen,” I said.
“Do you like this house?”
“Yes,” I replied.
Mrs Button sighed.
“I love it,” I said. “I don’t want to shift. My mother will mess you around forever. That’s the sort of thing she does. God. The amount of people’s time she’s wasted over the years. Write that down.” I tapped the folder in Mrs Button’s hand.
She started to smile. “The house is too much for her, Katie. It’s too big, run down…”
“We can’t leave.”
She hugged me; I felt a lump in my throat but I swallowed it down.
“It’ll be alright, you know.”
Mrs Button was the same age as Mum but she seemed years younger. Her strappy high-heeled bronze sandals matched her tanned legs, and she wore a cool denim skirt. Her face was tanned too and her blonde hair looked as though someone had tousled it up in fun. My mother had an obedient brown bob which never looked tousled. Not surprising, given the total absence of fun in her life.
You might not know this if you don’t live in Wellington, but there’s a certain way that women in Karori like to dress – a blouse with the collar turned up, tunic sweater, Tartan trousers or skirt and flat shoes. My mother never bought into this. She considered the Karori look somewhat agrarian. She wore a blazer, shirt and knee-length pencil skirt, plus her office heels every day, regardless of whether or not she was going in to her secretarial job. I’d heard people call her a classic beauty, with her English rose complexion and her freaky lingo. She was that sort of a woman.
Mrs Button’s sandals clicked in a snappy way on the old tile floor in the kitchen, then she was gone, out the back door. I watched out the window as she kicked her way through the dandelions, past the broken gate at the bottom of the garden, right on through the park to her black Volkswagon two streets over, where my mother had told her to park.
Our house was a two-storied wooden villa. It stuck out among the modern townhouses on our street. It was built in the early 1920s and was a heritage property.
It was painted dark green, with yellow window sills and a matching front door. The front porch was painted in the same yellow – Karitane Yellow is how my mother described it – a name that meant nothing to me but to give you a better picture, it was the same yellow as a very ripe banana.
There were two chimneys on the roof, which was a great mystery to everyone because there were no fireplaces, upstairs or anywhere else. You had to stand right out in the middle of the road to see them – two red and white brick stacks, which as far as we could tell had never puffed out smoke. Possibly the very first owners had chimneys. Maybe someone, at sometime, bricked over them then covered them with the same fancy wallpaper as in the rest of the house. Who knows?
Once, when I was younger, the chimneys made me cry at Christmas. What if Santa can’t slide down them? I imagined the big guy stuck, unable to crawl back up again with that enormous sack on his back. Mum said I was a nincompoop but Dad took me downstairs and showed me how he planned to prop the yellow door open for Santa.
By the way, that is one of my favourite memories of my father, but I’ll get on to him later.
When I say the house was green, I’m not being strictly honest. It had been green, but the heat of the sun had blistered the dark paint. It bubbled up then a good heavy downpour would split the surface and the paint would peel away. You could slip your fingernail underneath one of the splits and flick a big slice of green paint off. The bits underneath were a pinky shade, about the colour of smoker lollies. So, you’re probably getting the picture of a dark green and yellow house with pink splotches. If so, that is exactly it.
The answer to this problem of the peeling house was to repaint it. Obviously. A lighter colour that reflected the sun, rather than absorbed it. A few years ago, just after Dad went away, Mum realized this. She went to the hardware store on a mission to buy paint and to hire someone to come and do the job. She came back quite excited – for her – with a small piece of cardboard of a grey-blue colour.
“Sea-mist,” she announced, fanning the card in my face. “Our house will be this Sea-mist colour. We could even call it that, put a little plaque on the front door.”
I liked the idea a lot. It didn’t matter that we lived inland, where no sea-mist would ever drift to. I had secret hopes that this development might lead to some more modern improvements, such as Sky TV.
But two days later, a man and a woman came to the front door and asked to speak to my mother. The man was wearing too-short jeans that sagged in the backside and a shabby navy sweatshirt. The woman was agrarian Karori, head to toe. I stood behind Mum as they introduced themselves as members of the local Heritage Committee.
“What’s that, when it’s at home?” asked Mum.
“It advises the council,” replied the man. “About our lovely heritage properties.”
“Oh yes,” said Mum, looking them both up and down.
“Can we come in for a moment?” asked the woman.
“I’m just going out, sorry,” said Mum, I didn’t know this, and I wondered where. Then again, the visitors’ clothes would have been enough to justify a fib, as far as my mother was concerned.
“Oh. Well, it’s just an enquiry,” said the man. “We understand you’re having your house painted.”
Mum’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Heavens to Betsy, you understand, do you? And in what way is that anyone else’s business but mine?”
Neither of them answered.
“Are you aware your house is heritage-listed?” asked the woman.
“Yes, of course.” Mum smiled her old money smile; understanding but all-knowing.
“The thing is, you are obliged to keep to the original colours of the house, Mrs Des Moines. It is spinach green, that you’ve chosen?”
I was behind my mother, so I couldn’t see her face. But from the back she grew, like the Incredible Hulk during transformation. Her hands flew to her hips.
“Excuse me? Spinach? Would you like to come and have a look at what burnt spinach looks like?”
“We know how hard it is, Mrs DesMoines,” said the woman. “The upkeep of these heritage properties up. But…”
“Are you offering to pay for the paint job?” Mum interrupted.
“No,” said the man. “I’m sorry. There is provision in the bylaw to provide funding for restoration, except when the owners are able to meet the expense themselves.”
“Well let me assure you, this owner isn’t.”
“But have you not already ordered paint?” said the woman.
“Yes I have ordered paint.”
“Well then,” said the man.
“I’ve ordered longwearing, heat-reflective, inoffensive Sea-mist. I will not pay for wilting Spinach.”
“I’m afraid if you are going to paint the house, it must be in Spinach,” said the man. The agrarian woman nodded at him and Mum with one of those hey, what can you do? expressions on her face.
“For crying out loud,” said Mum. “If that’s the case, I won’t be painting it at all.” And she shut the door.
That’s how our house came to be in such a state. My mother refused to touch a thing, after the row on the front steps with the people from the committee. She seemed to take a pride in abandoning even the inexpensive maintenance. I’d watch her kick her way down the front steps every morning, holding her good skirt close to her so it didn’t get snagged in the overgrown rose bushes along the front path. She left the broken gate swinging, and headed off to work.
The lawnmower sat unused in the shed, the handrail fell away from the broken concrete steps leading up to the revolting yellow porch. I was getting lots of bee-stings from all the clover. I offered a few times to mow the lawn.
“Ah!” said Mum, waving me away, as though I was a fly bothering her on a hot day. “Don’t bother! What’s the point?!”
Most of my friends lived in the townhouses that my mother described as deplorable. I’d visit them and marvel at the developments in modern living: taps that didn’t shake when you turned them on, proper heating, that sort of thing. I’d go home and tell Mum all about them. I asked if we could get Sky TV and she said no, because we weren’t allowed a satellite dish on our roof. A lot of the time, I thought she wasn’t listening to me. But she must have been quietly thinking about it, because eventually she rang Mrs Button.
“How’s your mother, Katie?” Mrs Button half-whispered, as she came through the back door on her second visit. She stopped to pick the mud off the stiletto heels of her sandals.
“Fine, I think,” I replied. “You know, normal.”
“Oh good. Has she said much about it? Selling the house?”
“Not a word, Mrs Button,” I said.
“You know, Katie, you can call me Claudia.”
“I couldn’t, sorry. It’s impolite.”
“I wouldn’t say anything to your mother. You must be the last kid on earth who still says Mrs.”
“Doesn’t matter. I still couldn’t. Sorry.”
Mrs Button said that was fine. She started off down the hallway, towards the big lounge, and I followed behind. Half way, she stopped to look at the old photos hanging on the wall.
There were two of them – they were my English grandparents, Mum’s parents – I’d never met them. Black and grey photos of black and grey people; serious people.
“Mum says they talk to her,” I told Mrs Button.
“Pardon?” Mrs Button turned to me, smiling.
“The photos. She put them up after Dad left. She put them up one Sunday night, and the next morning, when she walked past them, one of them spoke to her. That’s what she said.”
“Wow, cool,” said Mrs Button. “I mean, creepy, but cool.”
“So?” said Mrs Button. “What do they say?”
“Told you so…stuff like that. She says they never forgave her for running away with a no-hoper from New Zealand.”
“Hmm,” said Mrs Button. “Do you believe her? About the talking photos, I mean?”
It was still unclear to me whether our house was actually officially for sale. Certainly, as far as I knew, nothing had been signed. Nor had I heard any talk of a price. Mum hadn’t told me anything. Then again, there was nothing unusual about that.
Mrs Button joined my mother in the big lounge, and I took my place on the stairs around the corner. They exchanged pleasantries, as Mum would say, then my mother got down to business.
“Did you get many calls, Claudia? I was surprised not to hear from you this week.”
“Not a single one, I’m afraid.”
“I find that astounding. I thought heritage properties were always in demand.”
“Hardly astounding Martha, considering.”
“Considering there is no visible evidence, anywhere on this planet, that your house is for sale.”
Silence from my mother. I was enjoying this. Mrs Button knew her stuff, when it came to real estate. I leaned forward to concentrate.
“So no-one rang.”
“No-one rang. Did anyone wander in off the street with an offer, Martha?”
Mum, on the ropes again.
There was a pause in the conversation then, it was hard to say whether it was one of those so-called companionable silences, or an awkward one. But when Mrs Button next spoke, you could tell she meant business.
“If you want the house to be sold, you have to let me sell it. That means signing an agreement, and putting a sign up on your front fence.”
This time, the silence seemed to go on forever. I would have liked to have seen my mother’s face as she thought about Mrs Button’s harsh words. But by showing myself, I would never get away with ear-wigging again. So I sat quite still, and waited, and listened.
“Martha, forgive me, I have to ask. Are you actually able to sign the papers? Do you own the house?”
Mum laughed. It sounded like a seagull hovering over left-behind fish and chips.
“Oh yes. I’m it,” she said. “One careful lady owner. Eric was the one who insisted we buy it, all those years ago, but a couple of years after he… he signed it over to me. Not that I had a choice... The papers arrived in the post, no return address for him.”
I listened to the slight scratching sound of Mum’s fountain pen – the one she used for all important paperwork – move across paper. Across, it turned out, the page of the sale agreement.
The next day, a white van pulled up at the front of the house. A man got out, and nailed a large FOR SALE sign to the broken down fence. I waited until he was gone, then I went out onto the street.
The sign was the most solid part of the entire property. It seemed to hold the whole place together. It was huge, and it listed the features of our house. Heritage property! A rare opportunity! Original features! Reluctant vendor moving on! Underneath, there was a little photo of Mrs Button, and her telephone number.
I went inside, looking for Mum. She was in the laundry, folding washing. I got to the point.
“How come we’re selling the house?” I asked her.
“Why.” She kept folding, flicking a towel snap into the air and wrestling it into sharp creases.
“I want to know. I’ve got rights, you know.”
“Why are we selling the house, not how come we are selling the house.”
“Alright then. Why are we selling the house?”
“Because we can not afford to restore it, and we’re not allowed to modernize it. You know that as well as I do Katie.” Another towel, flicked into submission.
I started to cry. I hated crying in front of Mum and usually I didn’t. I had a strategy. Did you know that if you keep your head completely still, and your face looking straight ahead, and you look upwards moving only your eyeballs, you can stop the tears coming? You try it sometime, it’s true. However, this time I left it too late.
Mum didn’t cope with me crying, ever. The folding got faster. She said nothing. I decided that seeing she was already annoyed with me, I’d just say it.
“If Dad comes back, he won’t know where we are.”
“I’ve told you before, Katie, he won’t come back.”
“How do you know that for sure?”
“I just do.” The folding never faltered, not for a second. “You have to take my word for that.”
I stopped crying. I had one more question to ask, so I got it out.
“If we’re selling the house, how come you’re being so awkward about it, with Mrs Button?”
“Why are you being so awkward?”
“What makes you think I’m being awkward?”
I remembered just in time that I wasn’t supposed to have been listening on the stairs. “Making her park her real estate car two streets away and walk in her nice sandals through the mud.”
“That’s not being awkward. It’s a nice walk through the park.”
“Pathetic,” I said. “Are you going to keep making her do that?”
“Probably,” said Mum. “I just don’t want the whole world knowing our business, that’s all. This is a special property Katie. In cases like this, deals are done quietly, without a great fuss. That is exactly the sort of deal I would like to do.”
“Well where would we live?”
“We’ll worry about that when the house sells.”
That night, I lay awake until eleven. When I was sure Mum was asleep, I tiptoed downstairs and out the front gate.
I crouched in front of the real estate sign. The clouds were covering the moon, it was hard to see. I waited until my eyes got used to the dark. Then I took the black permanent marker from my dressing gown pocket.
I’d decided earlier which number to change, when the sign first went up. With two careful, fat, curved strokes, the 3 in the telephone number became an 8.
The inside of our house was not quite as much of a disaster as the outside, but not far off.
Downstairs was sort of okay. There was the big lounge, where for some unknown reason the wallpaper had managed to stay stuck to the walls in most parts. Then there was the dining room and the kitchen, with its old coal range that we weren’t allowed to remove. My mother got around that by having a second stove put in next to it, and a microwave on the bench. The bathroom looked good – one of those old claw-foot baths, gold taps and stuff – but when you turned any of the taps, there was a huge clatter in the pipes before the water came spurting out. Sometimes you got hot water, sometimes you didn’t.
Right throughout the house, except for the kitchen and bathroom, was blood-red carpet. Apparently it was the original carpet, which is why no-one was allowed to replace it. In some places, like the big lounge, it stayed red but elsewhere it faded to a dusty brown.
Upstairs were the two bedrooms. That’s where the wallpaper was the worst. Layers peeling away. I don’t know why it was so bad upstairs, maybe different people who lived in the house had decided to renovate, started taking wallpaper off, then got nailed by the Heritage Committee and had to abandon their projects.
One of the bedrooms was Mum’s. The other one was mine. If you walked into my room, all you saw was books. There’s a bookshelf that runs the whole way round the room, except for the doorway and windows of course.
Which brings me to my father, and what I think I remember.
Dad was a writer. He never went to work. He stayed home with me, when I was little. He wrote books, though I’m not sure that any of them got published. I’ve never seen one.
During the day, Mum would go off to work in her accountancy office and Dad would work at the table. He used to get me to draw the pictures for his stories.
We had parties – big gatherings of proper writers and musicians, Dad’s friends – and Mum glowed and laughed in the middle of things. Yes, you read that right. My mother glowing and laughing. I can hardly believe I’m describing the same person, but back then she liked associating with important people, so it makes sense. I’m pretty sure I’ve remembered that correctly. I have a picture of it in my mind, it must have come from somewhere.
It wasn’t all good times. There was fighting, usually about money. Mum screamed at Dad about bills and the bank, and Dad just smiled and hugged her and said things like Don’t worry, it’ll all be alright Martha.
Every night, I would choose a book, and Dad would read it to me in bed. All our favourite books – his and mine – were on the shelf in my bedroom This is my main memory of him, I can remember going from picture books through to chapter books. The last book on the bookshelf was Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. It was dark blue, with gold lettering and lines on the cover. It was one of Dad’s books. His favourite story, he told me once, was The Doll’s House. He said the story had originally been called At Karori and he made me promise I’d read it when I got older. Which I will do, although I’ll have to get another copy because when he went away, his books disappeared.
I was five, or four maybe, when he left. It happened one night, when he was reading to me. The usual rule with the big books was one chapter a night. But Mum had a lot of pressure at work, and she had started going back into the office after dinner, so sometimes Dad would just read on.
That night, Mum came to the doorway. She was still in her work suit, but she had freshened up her lipstick and brushed her hair. I could smell her perfume, Chanel. I was surprised that she would waste it on work. Her most precious thing was her Chanel. So yes, I would have been surprised about the wastage of the Chanel, for sure.
“I have to go back in,” she said to Dad.
Dad acted as though he hadn’t heard her. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was too caught up in the story.
“Eric, I’m going. An hour or so.”
Dad read on. I sat up in bed – I’m pretty sure I would have – and reached out to Dad, to the book. “Dad, she has to go to work, okay?”
“Don’t go in tonight, Martha. I’m asking you not to go.” He definitely said that. I remember, because his voice sounded weird, tight, as though something had gone down the wrong way.
“I have to,” she said. “He wants me in there.” And then she was gone.
Dad kept reading. He read to the end of the chapter, then he started on the next one. I fell asleep.
The next day, he was gone. Mum had dark circles under her eyes, and her actual eyes were puffy and red. I remember asking her where Dad had gone, and she said she wasn’t sure. I asked when he was coming back, and she said she didn’t know. I asked her why he had gone away, and she didn’t know that either.
That is what I believed to have happened. I am reasonably sure that it went something like that. Sometimes, when I let the evening run through my head again, it turns out differently. It’s a little bit like the Santa and the chimney memory. Sometimes I’m not sure whether that ever happened at all.
The perfume smell is different. That, I remember for sure.
Of course, I asked Mum again, many times, about my father’s disappearance. She always had the same type of reply. She didn’t know. She wasn’t sure.
Some kids at school started saying he was in jail for theft. When I told Mum, she laughed.
“Poppycock,” she said. “Absolute rubbish. Tell them to mind their own business.”
The next rumour was that he had gone away to live with another woman. When I told Mum that one, she said nothing at all.
Of course, I asked again, many times. As I got older I tried to put the questions in other ways. I’d try to trick her, casually build them into other conversations.
The replies were always the same. She didn’t know. She wasn’t sure.
I asked her if he ever tried to contact me. “No,” Mum replied, and I felt so angry with him, I never asked that question again.
We had no relatives, and most people I knew had arrived in the neighbourhood after my father left. Besides, it’s not the sort of thing you ask other people really. Excuse me, just wondering, do you happen to know where my father is? I think, looking back, I just decided the best thing would be to simply wait for him to come back.
Over time, people stopped talking about us, about my father’s absence. Oh, now and again, something would happen – a mother who’d lived in the neighbourhood as long as we had would be talking to me and I’d see them look at me strangely. They might go to say something to me, then stop. And I’d know that they’d remembered there was something odd about me, about my situation.
But lots of my friends lived in the townhouses that annoyed my mother so much. There were plenty of them with just one parent. Mum never realised it, but aside from the house, we were a pretty normal family. She started talking in that strange old-fashioned way. She closed off her old life, like the ending of a story, and turned herself as a mysterious, private snob living in a grand old mansion, surrounded by agrarian women and townhouse peasants.
On her third visit, Mrs Button meant business. You could tell. She stomped in through the back door without knocking. She was carrying her sandals, one of the heels had snapped right off. She was holding it in her other hand.
“That bloody back path,” she said. “The heel went down a crack, I nearly went right over. Where’s your mother?”
I pointed towards the big lounge. “She’s in there already.”
She threw both her sandals in the corner of the kitchen and marched through, calling Martha? I kept out of her way until I knew they were settled, then I went to the stairs.
“The first Open Home will be on Saturday,” Mrs Button was saying. “Between eleven and twelve, when there’s plenty of sun around the back.”
“I won’t be having Open Homes, thanks.” said Mum.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to, Martha.”
“Any old Tom, Dick and Harry poking around the place.” Mum was carrying on as though Mrs Button hadn’t said anything.
“Open Homes are all part and parcel of the selling process. It would be highly unusual not have Open Homes.”
“Highly unusual, but not unheard of,” said Mum.
“Think about it this way. Would you buy a home, without looking through it?”
“I most certainly would. If I got the right feeling about a place, I would.”
“And how would that right feeling come to you, do you think?”
“Oh Claudia, don’t tell me you’ve never had a gut instinct about something. You see it, you just know. You just go for it.”
“I see. So we’re back where we started, whereby the passer-by falls unconditionally in love with your house and buys it, interior unseen.”
“The first Open Home will be this Saturday. Have a good clean up, put fresh flowers on the table and do some baking just before. The smell enhances the appeal, attracts buyers.”
Mrs Button laughed and, to my total surprise, Mum laughed with her. Then Mrs Button collected her sandals and the broken heel from the kitchen and left via the front door. She walked down the path, out the front gate, and turned left to start the two-block walk to her car in bare feet. I watched, holding my breath. She didn’t stop to read the For Sale sign.
Did my mother clean and tidy the house, before the Open Home? Did she buy fresh flowers and bake nice-smelling Buyer Cakes? Of course she didn’t. She made no particular effort at all. She got up that Saturday morning, got dressed, and went in to work. The house looked the same as it did every other day – a shambles, in Mum’s language.
Did I do anything to enhance the appeal of our house? I am proud to say I didn’t. In fact, I spent the eight days between Mrs Button’s visit and the Open Home thinking up ways of putting buyers off. These included importing ants into the kitchen, stuffing sour-smelling milk cartons behind the hot water cylinder and emptying black food colouring into the water tank.
When Saturday morning came, I walked around the house, trying to see it through the eyes of strangers. It was a ruin. I could not imagine anyone would want to buy our house. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on the amazing spruce-up powers of Mrs Button.
The Open Home started at eleven, but she arrived at eight thirty. Mum had left, and I was eating breakfast in the kitchen.
“Katie! You’re still here,” she said. She had come in through the front door, Mum must have given her a key. No more backdoor slinking for Mrs Button.
“Yes,” I said.
“You are going out, aren’t you.” Another of Mrs Button’s orders disguised as a question.
“I thought I would stay and watch,” I said.
“It’s not a t.v. show Katie. I’m sorry, but you can’t stay.”
“Why not? It’s still our house.”
Mrs Button sighed. “Because it’s upsetting, sometimes. And for the buyers, it can be… you just can’t stay. It’s not real estate sale practice.”
“Alright then. Can I finish my breakfast?”
“If you hurry,” Mrs Button said.
I watched as she got to work. She started on the kitchen. She scrubbed, scoured, mopped, wiped. She turned the oven on so warmth came out, and sprayed something out of a can. She grinned at me. “Banana cake fragrance. Real Estate Agent’s secret weapon,” she said.
On she went through the house. She picked up, vacuumed, polished, arranged, rearranged, straightened. She moved furniture to cover the wallpaper problems. Mirrors sparkled, dust disappeared. Rugs I had never seen before appeared over the worst of the red carpet. She ran water through the taps, unlocking the air bubbles that made them shake. She shook her head, muttering about the colour of the water, but she didn’t say anything.
When she had finished inside, she went out to the garden shed. She dragged the old lawnmower out. It took her twenty minutes to mow both the back and front lawns. The random bits of junk she piled inside the shed. She went out to her car, and came back with a toolbox. It took her ten minutes to put the gates back on their hinges.
I felt a lump in my throat. Mrs Button was right; it wasn’t a good idea to stay. It already wasn’t our house anymore. It belonged to people who cared about what others thought. That’s how it felt to me. I did the eyeballs-up thing, and managed to stop the tears.
I made a big deal about saying goodbye to Mrs Button, and I left half an hour before the Open Home.
On the other side of our back gate, in the park, was an enormous oak tree. Its roots were so close to our boundary that they had grown under our fence, lifting it slightly off the ground. The tree had millions of branches thick with leaves. Some of them hung over the fence, onto our property.
I’d left our house through the front door. Then, checking that Mrs Button wasn’t watching, I raced to the end of the road, round the corner, and into the park. I climbed the oak tree.
From the highest branches I looked into our house. I had never seen it from this angle. I watched through the leaves as Mrs Button walked around outside to the back of the house. She had a screwdriver in her hand, and I wondered what she was up to.
She stopped outside the first set of downstairs windows and poked the screwdriver in between the woodwork. She prised and pushed until the whole set of windows opened up and folded back. They were never windows, I realized. They were big opening doors. I’d never even noticed.
Mrs Button put the screwdriver down on the lawn, and pulled the doors again. They opened right back, on both sides. You could see everything inside our house – into the big lounge, the little table and chairs. Light flooded the rooms.
On she went with her screwdriver. More doors sprang open, this time revealing the kitchen. The tiled floor, the old coal range, and Mum’s modern stove sitting next to it. It looked like a doll’s house – one of those old-fashioned ones with the whole side of the house opening up.
Mrs Button disappeared back inside. She next turned up at my bedroom window, upstairs. I knew that one couldn’t be a door – there was no balcony. I could see her pushing hard from the inside, then the window popped open. She pushed it right back. Then she did the same in Mum’s room. You could see everything in the two rooms, they were at the exact same level as my branch. I pulled back into the leaves of the tree, in case Mrs Button saw me.
In a little while, people started to walk through our house. Just a few at first, but soon there were lots. From the tree, I watched as they moved in and out of our rooms. It was as though the house had been sliced open; you could follow the progress of these strangers as they wandered around.
I thought I would feel funny – upset – but I didn’t, not at all. This tidy, spick and span, shiny house that had been opened up for the world to see wasn’t ours. That wasn’t the way we lived. And I knew that once these strangers worked out that the house was falling to bits, they’d leave and we could get back to normal.
I tried to keep an eye on the ones who went round twice, who might be serious about buying. What I would do about them I wasn’t sure, but it was important to know who they might be.
There was another reason I was watching. I wondered whether my father might come. I kept expecting to see one of the little toy-sized men turn around and be him. It was a stupid idea and I knew it wouldn’t happen, except I kept thinking that it would. It didn’t.
It was nearly time for Mrs Button to close up our house. A man arrived. I could see clearly into the kitchen, where Mrs Button had laid out her paperwork on the table. She was just gathering it all up to put in her bag, when he walked in.
He was wearing a suit but it made him look scruffy, not sophisticated. You had the feeling that he could have been a rich businessman once, but he had gone to seed, as Mum would say. His shoulders were stooped and he had quite a belly on him. He looked as though things had got on top of him.
He shook Mrs Button’s hand. They talked for a while. I wondered whether he might be a friend of hers. Mrs Button waved her hand at him, as if to say go on ahead, then she got back to the task of packing up.
The guy disappeared. I wondered which room he would pop up in first. He appeared in the main lounge, walking slowly around, stopping to look at photos on the mantelpiece. I thought this was a bit rude, but to be fair, he might have been checking the wallpaper.
Then he appeared upstairs, in my bedroom. He didn’t spend long in there at all. He probably had no kids.
Finally, he stood in the doorway of Mum’s room. He looked like the little man doll off a wedding cake, stiff and formal, hands by his sides. I felt as though I could reach out and pick him up with two fingers. He stood there for ages, then he walked in, and closed the door behind him.
You wouldn’t believe what he did next. He picked up Mum’s Chanel from her vanity table, walked to her big bed and sprayed the perfume on her pillow. Then he laid down on it.
He was only there a few seconds – a minute at the most. Finally, he stood up, smoothed the bed down, and turned the pillow over. He left Mum’s room.
I felt dizzy; I’d stopped breathing. My lungs hurt. I took quick, sharp suck-ins of air, as though I’d just run a race. I wasn’t close enough to the window to smell Mum’s perfume. But I definitely could. Heavy, sweet, suffocating. Straight away, I remembered the night Mum and father argued about her going back into work; the night Dad disappeared.
I climbed down out of the tree as fast as I could and ran around the block. I rushed along the street to the front of our house.
By the time I got there, Mrs Button was loading her stuff into the car.
“Oh hello Katie – good timing. We’re done for the day” she said.
Who was he? I went to ask but the words stuck in my throat. “Is the house sold?” I said instead.
She laughed. “No. It doesn’t happen that quickly.”
In the distance, a car disappeared around a corner.
The open homes carried on. At each one, I took my place in the oak tree and watched. I didn’t think the sad man in the suit would come back, but he did. Not every time, but when a new real estate agent was running the show. He must have parked and watched, waiting to see who was in charge. He slipped past the agent, not bothering with the kitchen, and wandered in and out of the rooms. Every visit was the same as that first one; a whiz around the house, then into Mum’s bedroom, closing the door carefully behind him. Then, the perfume on the pillow.
Someone did buy the house. Not the weird guy, and not straight away, but nearly a year on. After heaps more open homes and torture sessions between poor Mrs Button and Mum.
When Mum and I packed everything up, we found some portraits of the original owners of our house. They were big people; stiff, formal. There were two kids in the photo too. My mother was triumphant, holding those photos in one hand, the photos of her own parents in the other.
“You see, Katie. This was a grand house in its day. Owned by people of great gravitas. Of very high standing in society.”
I realized I had never known exactly why our house was heritage-listed. You don’t care about things like that, when you’re a little kid. I thought about asking Mum then, as we bundled our stuff into boxes. There were lots of things I could have asked her about, including perfume-man. But by then I had some of my own secrets to hide, some of my own plans in the pipeline. And I guess I’d given up on question-asking as a waste of time. The trouble with specific questions is that they got specific answers. No more.
I found some photos of my father in the bottom of an old packing case. There was one of him reading to me at night – Mum must have taken it. I never mentioned those photos to Mum. I felt panicked, looking at them, frightened that my real memories of him were fading so fast I wouldn’t recognize him again.
I ended up not keeping a lot of my own stuff. It felt as though one part of my life – my kid years – were over and a new start was just around the corner. I had no idea what the new start was actually going to be, but when Mum and I locked the yellow front door for the last time and walked down the garden path, the photos of my father were in my bag.