From The New Normal
‘It’s the one with the flowers,’ Sarah said to the Uber driver. He turned into the driveway next to a small collection of red poppies that had been planted into the grass verge.
‘Is this like the posh version of a tinnie house?’ Elsa said. ‘Full narcos?’
‘Its more like for ANZAC.’ Sarah was jiggling her knee. ‘But just you wait.’
The driveway was long and on the right side was a row of alternating topiaries − pyramids, spheres, pyramids, spheres. On the left hand side was a scraggle of native bush; the pink kernels of manuka flowers bowing down to meet the flax.
‘Which side is yours?’ Elsa asked. Sarah looked at her and made an I-don’t-even-want-to-talk-about-it face.
Through the glass front door Elsa could see a dog bounding down the hallway, twisting its black body in circles as it ran. Sarah opened the door and the dog jumped up.
‘Hello darling,’ a voice called. Sarah’s mum. Elsa was sure of it. She could hear it in the vowels. ‘I’m through here.’
Elsa followed Sarah through the front door and into a room where, on the far side, Margot was lying on a black leather couch under a blanket. Elsa had never been in a room like this before. She stood with Sarah at the doorway, looking down into the vastness of it, like a museum. It was how she imagined people in London lived. Not people like her and her mum, but people who had grandparents who had started printing presses or taught at Oxford. The room had a bookshelf covering an entire wall and smelled of candles even though Elsa couldn’t see any that were lit. There was a lamp the shape of a paua shell, turned over, with hundreds of little holes in it that let light come through and make patterns on the wall next to the family photos: Sarah, her brother and her dad climbing in the branches of a big old tree.
On the table beside Margot was a teapot painted like a giraffe. The long neck with a head on the end was its handle. It looked handmade. Arty. Facing Margot was a giant flat screen T.V. on mute. There was a woman on the T.V. in her pyjamas eating a banana covered in chocolate and chopped nuts.
‘This is hilarious,’ Margot said, unmuting the T.V. ‘Have you seen this?’ Margot kept watching the T.V. She hadn’t seen Elsa yet and Elsa felt out of place in the room, a dark spot amongst these blondes, sucking light into her holey tights, her black hair with a kink in it from the plane.
‘Come here darling,’ Margot said and Sarah went further into the room, towards Margot on the couch. Elsa was still in the entranceway to the room, if it was possible that rooms could have entranceways; that the way the furniture was arranged meant part of the room was for guests and the other, deeper part, only for family.
‘Mummy, you seriously can’t like this,’ Sarah said and Elsa stayed back. There it was, that mummy.
‘Sometimes when I get home and there’s nothing in the cupboards, I still just need a delicious treat. This is one I absolutely LOVE. Roll it in nuts and there’s your protein. Carb free too – I know you’ve been naughty,’ said the woman on the T.V.
‘Oh darling, lighten up.’ Margot pointed at the T.V., her small hand, bony and long, swished in a circle like she was doing a curse. ‘I know Nigella’s gone downhill.’ With her other hand she pulled Sarah down towards her. She still had force. ‘How’s my wonderful lawyer?’ she said, and Sarah made a sound like she was a baby whining from the back of her throat. ‘Any nice young men at the firm?’
It was then that Sarah seemed to remember she was there with Elsa. Elsa knew nothing had been said about them to Margot. ‘My flatmate Elsa,’ she’d heard Sarah say on the phone. Not even friend. ‘Don’t be so pathetic,’ Elsa had told Sarah. But Sarah said ‘no.’ It wasn’t like that with her mum, it wasn’t like she could just turn up and say ‘hey I’m a lesbian sorry you won’t ever have any grandchildren thanks for everything.’ Elsa hadn’t had anything to say to this, though it had surprised her that Sarah – who presented herself as so progressive, as wanting to save the world, who volunteered at the homework centre in Newtown, helping refugee children do assignments on the Treaty of Waitangi – would care what her mother would think, or that she even had a mother who would care. But now she saw, Margot was sick and Sarah was a lawyer. There was some kind of wall that Sarah was holding up, one that said, don’t worry, I’ll look after myself, you’ve done a good job. Absolutely. Elsa had seen it before, not so much a wall but a platform, the place Sarah stood at a slight elevation looking down across the world. Margot was up there too, a little higher than her daughter, sitting on her couch, tut-tutting Nigella. Elsa found it all very alluring.
‘Mum, this is Elsa.’ Sarah turned around. Elsa already had her camera out around her neck. She lifted it up and took a photo, both Sarah and Margot facing her with their clear white faces and blonde hair, the dark back wall of the room casting them in sharp relief. She let the camera hang back down around her neck. Margot had very cool clear plastic framed glasses that she pushed down her nose. Elsa smiled at them both and pulled her hair back.
‘Hi. So awesome to meet you, Margot.’ Elsa went over to the couch and kissed Margot on both cheeks, holding the camera to her chest so it didn’t hit out at Margot. “Sarah said you wouldn’t mind.’
Margot was still lying down. Elsa could properly see the T.V. now, Nigella had just finished eating the banana and was in bed wearing pyjamas with a diamante playboy bunny on her top.
Margot smiled up at Elsa, her deep-set eyes showing lots of the whites. She pulled the blanket up around her neck, her hands wrapped up in the fluffy wool, keeping warm.
‘Sarah didn’t tell me you were a photographer,’ Margot said, still smiling.
‘Mostly on my phone, but Sarah’s lent me this old camera.’ Elsa held the camera out to Margot.
‘I know,’ Margot said. ‘It was mine.’
This was good, thought Elsa. Margot was an interesting person, a photographer! Perhaps she would learn something this weekend, make a bond with her. The painting above the fireplace looked expensive and abstract. This was her in.
‘I used to be a photographer too, when I was younger.’ Margot said and Sarah turned to Elsa, raised her eyebrows as if to say, see, I thought you’d enjoy this, she’s great. ‘And I have to say,’ Margot continued. ‘What you just did is absolutely incredibly rude.’
At first, Elsa thought Margot was joking and she laughed.
‘What?’ Elsa said, the word getting caught in the lightness of her laugh. It sounded like a piece of banter that had been extracted from its back-and-forth.
Elsa looked at Sarah, hoping for her to chime in.
‘Elsa, you probably,’ Sarah said, visibly uncomfortable. ‘Mummy, it’s not like.’ Sarah started again. ‘You know.’
It was as if they were referring to another, much larger rudeness Elsa didn’t know about.
‘I just think, when you first meet someone, Elsa, is it?’ Margot said.
Elsa nodded at her, keeping her lips sealed, biting at the bottom one.
‘You don’t throw a camera in their face. For one thing, I’m not wearing an ounce of makeup. I mean, really.’
Margot rolled her eyes around till her lids were closed and Elsa could see a light brown sparkle on them.
‘O.K.,’ Elsa took the camera off from around her neck and sat it down next to the giraffe teapot. She slowly placed a hand onto the top of the camera and un-tucked her lips. ‘O.K.,’ she said again.
Margot and Sarah were looking at her expectantly.
Then quickly Elsa picked the camera back up. ‘I’ll just open it.’ She started fiddling with the camera. She’d had to get the guy at the store to put the film in for her because she didn’t know how. ‘This way you don’t have to worry. I’ll just ruin it with the light.’
At the same moment as Elsa found the button to spring the back of the camera open, Margot leapt up from the couch and put her hands right around everything: the camera, Elsa, and the strap that was twisted up across Elsa’s knuckles. There was a crisp click of something fitting into place and all three women in the room exhaled at once. Sarah came up behind her mother to make sure she was stable, but Margot stepped closer into Elsa as Elsa herself stepped back from her own hands, keeping the camera between them like a trick.
Margot took it from her and turned it over, holding it in the most natural way. The back of the camera was still closed shut, flush against the edge where you held it up to your face. Margot pointed it at the T.V. without looking through the lens. She had the camera in just one hand and pressed the shutter release like it was nothing.
‘I guess you’ll just have to see what happens,’ she said, handing the camera back to Elsa. With the other hand she reached down to pick up her blanket from the floor.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mia Gaudin completed her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2017. During the MA year she completed the first draft of her first novel. She has previously had poetry, short stories and cultural reviews published in a number of places, including Hue & Cry, Mimicry, Pantograph Punch, Salient and The New Zealand Listener.