The Newcomer

Laura Elizabeth Woollett


Pulling onto the gravel-and-mud of Tenderloin Road, Judy had the feeling she was trespassing. A downcast Fairfolk flag, dripping against its pole. A bathtub murky with rainwater. A miniature plantation of palm trees, their bases sharp with rat traps. Then she noticed the letterbox: shaped like a cow, with a slot for a bum-crack. She laughed, louder than it warranted. Paulina had told her about the letterbox, and the lady it belonged to — her landlady, Vera.

Judy parked in front of the main house.

It was a white clapboard house with an olive-green tin roof. Wraparound porch cluttered with fishing gear and mismatched furniture. Judy wondered if she should knock before proceeding to the cottage. Then she spied Paulina’s little blue Mazda parked outside.

So she is home! Unless—

The windows of the Mazda were open. Carpet drenched. Upholstery drenched. A puddle of water on the dashboard, flecked with dirt and stray pine needles.

‘Oh, Paulina!’ Judy cried, and shivered all over.

She crossed the yard to the cottage — a smaller, boxier version of the main house. Banged on the flyscreen. ‘Yoo-hoo! Paulina!’

No answer, except the jingle-jangle of a cat, scampering out of the bushes and winding its fluffy, toasted-marshmallow-coloured body around Judy’s legs.

Judy grimaced. ‘You’re not Paulina.’

She tried the door. Unlocked. This wasn’t so strange, was it? Paulina was always saying nobody believed in locks here.

The cat dashed inside.

Right away, Judy could tell two things: Paulina wasn’t home, but had been. Car keys on the counter. A half-empty water glass. The cat leapt onto the counter, sniffed the water.

‘Shoo!’ Judy cried. ‘Get down.’

She peeked inside the pantry. Canned soup. Canned veg. Alcohol — a lot of it.

‘Oh, Paulina,’ Judy repeated, noticing a stack of empty goon boxes by the bin.

The bathroom, though, made her proud. No dirty clothes on the floor. Only a single long brown hair in the sink. Towels hung from a rack on the door, the hooks shaped like seahorses. Even a wicker hamper for her laundry.

Judy looked through cabinets, heart hammering. Found Paulina’s blow-dryer, plugged it in, and puffed her hair back to life.

Her heart was calmer, entering Paulina’s bedroom. Not snooping. Just checking.

The bed was made. Good girl. Cobalt-blue damask covers she knew Paulina had ordered from a catalogue, waited weeks for.

A copy of Anna Karenina on the bedside table. Judy opened the bedside drawer.

Phone book. Birth control. Diary.

She should’ve known better; she’d read Paulina’s diary once when she was a teenager, and they’d fought bitterly about the contents. But surely things were different now?

March 21, 2002

Hangover. Fat pig. Sick of this shit, wish I was dead already.

Judy shut the diary away, fought the tears. Oh, Paulina! ‘Mrep!’ The cat slunk into the room, pounced on the bed, and stalked toward Judy’s lap. Judy jumped to her feet. Snatched a tissue from the box by the bed, blew her nose — then wondered how often Paulina used those same tissues to clean up after men.

That’s what you get for snooping!

Crossing the room, Judy paused to check her hair in Paulina’s vanity, to spray Paulina’s perfume. Picked up the framed photo Paulina kept of herself, taken by her ex, Vinnie, outside Marko’s village in Croatia. Judy had never seen the village. Didn’t especially want to. Still, she’d envied Paulina — twenty-five and zipping off to Europe with a 65-litre backpack and the Greek boy she almost married.

‘Knock, knock!’ a cheery voice — not Paulina’s — called from the front door. ‘Fresh-laid Easter eggs.’

The cat sprinted to meet the voice. Judy followed it, face burning; she was sure the snooping would show on her face. ‘Hello? I’m just looking for—’

‘You must be Judy.’ The woman, previously just a silhouette in the flyscreen, let herself in, and, in one fell swoop, set down a basket of eggs and scooped up the cat. ‘I’m Vera. I see you already met the Queen of the World, Miss Katie. Paulina’s out, is she?’

A tall woman, wide-hipped, brown as toast, older than Judy — but not so much older that she’d call her ‘old’, like Paulina did. I’m renting from this old lady now. Vera, the old landlady. The old bitch next door’s on at me for smoking again. Vera’s dark-grey hair was short as a man’s, her clothes also mannish: boots, jeans, grey flannel. Slanted, very dark eyes. The first Islander Judy had seen who looked remotely Polynesian, instead of like a run-of-the-mill sunbaked Anglo-Australian.

‘I don’t know where she is. She told me she’d meet me at Mutineers’ Lodge, but that was hours ago.’ Don’t cry. Do. Not. Cry. Judy looked determinedly at the couch. ‘Maybe I should go back to the hotel?’

‘Absolutely not.’ Vera’s face smoothed in sympathy. ‘Come up. I’ll make some calls.’

The cat squirmed in Vera’s arms as she led Judy across the yard. ‘I wait on Miss Katie hand-and-foot, but she prefers Paulina. Every time she hears her come in — whoosh.’

‘Cats love Paulina,’ Judy played along.

‘Cleopatra reincarnated,’ Vera quipped. A border collie lazing on the verandah grumbled as she side-stepped it. ‘Don’t mind Jake. He’s just lovesick.’

The house was busy with weekend clutter: a leaning mop, draped rags, splayed newspapers, and, on the kitchen table, a bowl of fish-guts. Vera dumped the cat, moved the bowl to the floor. ‘Rocky!’ she called. In response, a beetle-browed older man shuffled into the kitchen and shook Judy’s hand, shuffled out again.

‘Pacific Games re-runs.’ Vera rolled her eyes. ‘Coffee, tea, Milo? Or you can have a beer with Rocky.’

‘Milo. Thanks.’

Vera nodded toward the lounge. Obediently, Judy went and sat on the weathered navy-blue couch across from Rocky’s armchair.

Weightlifters grunted in a grainy gymnasium. Vera returned with a mug and a plate of Scotch fingers, nudged Rocky’s ankle with her boot. He lowered the volume. Sitting beside Judy, Vera reached behind the couch for a directory and an off-white corded phone.

‘Yorana, Kymba.’ Vera listened for a moment, brow furrowed — then started speaking rapidly in a funny, old-timey almost-English.

‘Sorry,’ she told Judy, after she hung up. ‘It’s just easier speaking Fayrf’k, if you want to get to the point.’

‘Oh, don’t mind me.’ Judy waved her hand. ‘You can speak Klingon for all I care.’

It was disconcerting, though, as more conversations rushed by, seemingly varied in detail and nuance, yet all with the same result — no Paulina.

‘Camel?’ Rocky suggested after his wife hung up again.

Vera dialled a new number. Judy nibbled a Scotch finger. Stale. Dipped it in her Milo. Why had she asked for Milo?

‘He’s nay home,’ Vera muttered, hanging up.

‘Eddy?’ Rocky suggested.

Vera scowled. ‘Nay, Rocky!’

Rocky shrugged, chuckled. Vera dialled. ‘Yorana, Eddy …’

Miss Katie leapt onto the couch, kneaded Judy’s thigh. Vera’s face was red when she finished her call. She muttered something vicious at Rocky in Fayrf’k, didn’t translate. Rocky chuckled again, drained his tinnie, and shuffled out.

Judy finished her Milo. Vera dialled. ‘Merlinda … ?’ Jake loped into the room, followed by Rocky, who offered a cold-beaded can to Judy.

‘No. Thank you.’

Vera thrust out her hand. After finishing up the call, she cracked it open and swigged. ‘Merlinda saw Paulina driving.’

‘Oh?’ Judy perked up.

‘Around eleven am.’

Judy’s heart sank. ‘Oh.’

Jake whimpered and lay on the rug. Miss Katie’s tail lashed. ‘Toa?’ Rocky suggested, and it was suddenly horribly clear to Judy that he was no longer interested in the faded footage.

Judy stood up. ‘Excuse me. Mind if I—’

‘Right down the hall,’ Vera pointed, already dialling.

The bathroom was done up in peaches-and-cream tiles, daisy decals on the walls. Judy ran the taps. Washed her hands; washed her face; wept. Washed her face again.

‘You’re fine,’ she reassured her reflection. ‘We’re both fine.’

Lifting the fuzzy peach toilet lid, Judy unbuttoned her shorts, tugged aside her swimsuit, and peed a stinging trickle. UTI? Wonderful. On the wall above the toilet was a picture of a dreamy-faced fairy squatting on a toadstool, bloomers around her ankles, thought-bubble at her head:

Sometimes I sits and thinks

And sometimes I just sits.

‘Gawd!’ Judy despaired. ‘Get me out of here!’

When Judy returned to the lounge, she found Vera and Rocky huddled and talking quietly in Fayrf’k. Across the room, the mantel clock struck seven.

‘Shame on me! It’s your dinnertime.’ Judy sucked in a lungful of stuffy air. ‘Thanks for your help, but I really should get back to Mutineers’ Lodge. Maybe she’s left a message.’

‘I tried Mutes’.’ Vera said. ‘Tried everyone we could think of; it’s strange …’

A splitting pain shot through Judy’s chest. She closed her eyes, leaned against the mantle. When she opened them, Vera was standing before her, lips pursed white.

‘It’s real strange, I have to tell you. The sort of place Fairfolk is …’ Vera gestured. ‘You sneeze in your backyard, five people shout “bless you”. You buy a bunch of flowers, ten people ask who you’re trying to impress. Everyone’s always looking over each other’s shoulders.’

Nodding, Judy tried not to think of the main street, deserted in the rain.

‘And Paulina: she’s eye-catching. I guess you know that. It’s strange, no one seeing her in so long.’ Vera glanced at Rocky. ‘I hate to say it, but …’

Don’t say it! Don’t.

‘I think we should call the police.’

Like a slap: this thought Judy had been avoiding, so clearly articulated.

‘Oh! No. She’s just …’ But Judy had no justifications. ‘Please. Do you really think—’

‘I do,’ Vera cut in. ‘Mother to mother? I think it’s for the best.’

As Vera dialled, Judy’s throat tightened. To hide her hot, broken face, she examined a little clay jar on the mantle, a line-up of framed photographs.

‘Jake as a puppy.’ Rocky came up behind her, pointed. ‘Katie as a kitten.’

Judy nodded politely. He pointed at another picture: a beautiful girl with waist-length black hair. ‘Vera as a puppy, kitten?’

‘Gorgeous,’ Judy mumbled. ‘Are those your kids?’

‘Vera’s kids.’ Rocky grinned. ‘Nothing to do with me.’

‘He said to come to the station.’ Vera stood, dusting cat-hair from her jeans.

‘The station?’ Judy cried, affronted.

‘It’s close. Five minutes.’ Vera avoided her eye. ‘I’ll drive.’

Rocky went to the coat rack for windbreakers, whistled at Jake, who ran ahead to the door.

Outside, the sea breeze licked Judy’s cheeks. They hopped into Vera’s jeep: Rocky in the back with Jake, Judy shotgun.

‘Some tourists aren’t prepared for how cold it gets at night.’ Vera started up the jeep. ‘Of course, that’s how it goes when you’ve got the sea on all sides. Big temp drops.’

You bitch, don’t you dare talk to me about the weather. ‘I know. I spent my honeymoon here. Did they say why they want us at the station?’

‘Didn’t say much.’ Vera rolled onto Tenderloin Road. ‘Your honeymoon? Really.’

‘1969,’ Judy said, her willpower like a punctured tyre. ‘I wanted to go to the Central Coast. But Marko wanted to take me somewhere exotic.’

The Newcomer Laura Elizabeth Woollett