Heidi North-Bailey (Auckland University, New Zealand)
I have only met Claudette twice. First was when she turned up outside my father’s birthday party in a white Saab. She pulled up slow beside me on the curb, rolled down her window. She was wearing the kind of dress that women wore a lot in those days – tight, softly-faded denim. It skimmed her thighs when she folded her long legs over each other. I could hardly believe it when she swung open the passenger door. She let me sit in the car with her and chat. It was hot but the sun had gone, and everybody else was out back, smoking on the lawn.
She said, ‘I don’t smoke, honey.’ Her voice laced with regret, like it meant something else. I didn’t know what it meant, so I said nothing. I shoved my ten-pack back in my pocket. I tried not to sweat. I’d never been so close to a woman who wasn’t a relative before. We listened to the radio and she sang along to Tom Waits. I was glad to be wearing my new pair of jeans.
I turned to her in the half-light and she laughed before I’d even said anything, tipping her head back to expose her beautiful throat. ‘Sure – why not?’
I knocked my knees against the hand brake reaching for her. She was wearing these silver earrings that caught in the light. I thought I might go blind. She gave me a beer from the back seat and I got out of the car and went back into the party. I could smell Dad burning sausages. I wiped peach lipstick on the back of my jeans. I didn’t tell anyone about the kiss. Who would believe me?
It was only much later – I’m talking years later – when I thought to wonder what she was doing there. Why she’d come. Who she knew.
The second time was at my father’s funeral. I saw a slim figure in a maroon overcoat as we approached the church. Spike heels. I was at the back left of the coffin. The silver handle slipping in my sweaty hand. She was standing in the shadows near the door. I wondered who she was. She was so much older, her hair still blonde, but less so. She stepped back to let us pass when we entered the church. I stumbled in the sudden dim. She stepped forward. I felt a hand steady my arm. I breathed in a storm of flowers. Her dark red nails pressed into the wood, brushed my sleeve as they left the coffin.
My mother almost tripped over her after the service when she went to get the first round of tea. I heard a voice say, ‘Sorry, honey. Can I help you with that?’ I knew her then.
I turned around from the front of the church; someone I barely remembered was pressing my hand with condolences. Claudette was holding a tray of little cut up sandwiches. She looked right through me. I thought she didn’t recognise the boy in me. Then slowly, slowly, she smiled.
I turned to my aunt standing next to me, asked her who Claudette was. She’d known all my father’s friends. She said she didn’t know anyone of that name.
‘She’s standing at the back of the church, behind Mr Peters.’ I glanced behind me again. My heart hammered as I saw her. My wife was approaching from the other side of the room. Claudette raised her hand, put the sandwiches on an empty seat. Tinkled her fingers as she left.
My aunt tightened her grip on her handbag. Looked me in the eye. ‘There’s no one here by that name.’
Heidi North-Bailey won an International Irish poetry competition (Feile Filiochta International Poetry Competition) in 2007. Returning to NZ in 2011 after four years in London, she received a grant from the NZ Society of Authors for help finishing her first poetry collection, Things I wanted to tell you. She now aims to get it published.
A writer and freelance editor from Auckland, she is currently studying towards a Master’s in Scriptwriting and Directing for Film at Auckland University. She is working on a screenplay and chipping away at a novel.