Under the House

Later on our trip we visited my Uncle Brian and Auntie Shirley in Hamilton. I had not seen Brian since my father’s funeral in 1990, and Shirley for even longer. She found the cartoon channel for the kids to watch while we sat in the sunroom having a pre-lunch drink. It was a Saturday. Fine. Hot inside, but cool out.

Shirley told me a story from the late 1950s or early 1960s. They were driving down to Wanganui, and decided, on the spur of the moment, to drop in to visit us in Burns Street, Ohakune. They had not telephoned, telegrammed or otherwise said they were coming.

Our house had a big high hedge in front of it, an enormous beech tree, a beautiful overgrown garden, with fruit trees and vegetables out the back, the river running behind. I can see Brian and Shirley going through the gate, past the lilac and the snowball on the front lawn, down the side of the house where pansies and sweet william grew, and round the back.

There was no-one home. We had all gone away for our summer holiday. The washing machine was full of dirty water and half-washed clothes, the vacuum cleaner was sitting in the hallway, still plugged in, the back door was wide open and on the mat was the mummified body of a cat.

Shirley said that, afterwards, when she talked to my parents, she found out what had happened. Everyone was in the car, waiting to go, when they noticed I was missing. They called. And called. And then I crawled out from under the house with – the dead cat. I was a young boy, less than ten years old.

I can picture the scene. My father has packed all the camping gear into the trailer and is standing out by the car smoking, impatient to get going. My mother is part way through any number of mundane household tasks, also getting us kids ready but, beyond that, fatally distracted by some preoccupation of her own, some imaginative construction of events probably yet – or never – to happen. My sisters, all five of them, are somehow arranged in the car: three in the back and the two little ones in the front, perhaps. And I am under the house.

Though I have no memory of this event, I recognise myself in it. That fascination with dark places, the wonderful discovery of the mummy, the joy I would have felt in showing the others ... as I write I seem to touch again the fine brown dirt under my hands, feel the knobbly feeling of the floor beams and boards just above my backbone, smell the cobwebby, dry, dusty odour of under-the-house ... while ahead of me, just out of reach, there’s something lying, some marvel ...

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