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Short Story Club – 1 November

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BUTTERFLY SMITH

1987

The first time they lost Butterfly was in the Auckland railway station. One moment he was standing there guarding the shabby luggage – one long leg on either side of the big suitcase – and the next moment he was gone.

That day his long legs were encased in the new jeans he’d bought out of his last pay, but over the top of these went his tattered ‘originals’, now reduced to pitted shreds of faded denim. At least Shelley knew these were clean – she had laundered them herself at the laundromat on Monday, as she had the tartan shirt he was wearing, sleeves rolled up to expose the tattoos on his forearms. Two bruise-coloured butterflies. He had been clutching his bundled-up swanni, also clean though somewhat shrunken from the laundromat machine, under his arm.

Shelley had left him to take the twins to the waiting-room lavatory. Davie was old enough to go to the Men’s now, but on that occasion had chosen to accompany his twin, Maria, to the Ladies’. And when they returned to the spot, Butterfly was gone. They waited a while to see if he emerged from the cafeteria or the Men’s. Then Shelley noticed the envelope sticking out from the handle of the big suitcase.

It was a shock. She felt as if someone had kicked her in the small of her back. Not that her relationship with Butterfly had ever been considered a permanent one. He was ten years younger than her for a start. He had used to say, laughing with surprise at himself – ‘What the hell am I doing with a middle-aged mother of two? I must be crazy!’ But then he would kiss her, or put his hand up her skirt. Middle aged was a bit of an exaggeration. She was thirty while he had barely turned twenty. So. She put the note away in her pocket and embarked on the job of reassuring the twins.

She was good at reassuring. It mattered to her that her children found the world a comfortable, secure place to inhabit, even while she knew herself this wasn’t so. Only the day before, when Maria had lost her cardigan and worried that it might feel abandoned and lonely, she had heard herself explaining to the child – ‘Cardigans are like cats. They just curl up where they are and wait for the new owner to come along. It won’t feel sad.’ Despite the fact that Shelley would have to buy wool she couldn’t afford, and knit another cardigan, a chore she hated.

So now, shocked by Butterfly’s desertion, she had to rally her resources to say – ‘Well, we can eat his share of the chocolates on the train, can’t we?’

‘Will he come back?’

‘Oh I expect so.’

‘Didn’t he like us?’ Davie asked, not fooled by her cheerfulness. ‘Did we do something wrong? We made too much noise, didn’t we?’

‘No, of course you didn’t. Of course he likes you. I read you the note – there was that bit just for you two. It sent you his love.’

‘Why did he write to us? He knows I can’t read yet.’

‘Well –’

‘And why do we have to look after you?’ Maria asked, peeved. ‘ “Look after Mummy” – that’s silly. You should look after us.’

‘And I will. I do,’ Shelley reminded them. She felt wrenched inside. Why now? Why did he have to go away now, when they were going off on holiday. He had been taking them to visit his parents in Napier. Well, that wouldn’t happen now. But they couldn’t turn around and go home to Georgina Street. She would have to cut the week at the motel back to four days – that way she could afford to pay the bill. She hoped. And what would they do, for God’s sake, in Napier where she knew no one? Never mind. There would be a trampoline, perhaps a heated pool. And right now the sun was shining.

*

A year later Butterfly returned, as unexpectedly as he had left, with pockets full of badges and transfers for the twins. They went wild with excitement and Shelley couldn’t organise a moment alone with him until nearly midnight that day.

Their relationship continued, but not quite as before. She was uneasy now, waiting for his next desertion. She became more than ever aware of his discomfort when they spent time with her friends or family. To them he was exotic, alien, odd. For one thing, his name.

‘What should we call him?’ her mother had asked.

‘Butterfly, of course.’

‘But what’s his name? His real name.’

‘It’s one he doesn’t own up to. He hates it. It doesn’t suit him.’

‘Do you know it?’ her mother asked suspiciously.

‘Of course I do.’

‘But you won’t tell.’

‘No.’ In fact Shelley had only recently come across it herself by accident, on his driving licence. Lochinvar Cecil Smith. She thought it was rather nice. But Butterfly preferred Butterfly.

To make matters worse he had returned after his first absence with a severed thumb. He had been working with a lathe in a friend’s workshop and chopped it clean off.

‘Why didn’t they sew it on again?’

‘Too late. I was stoned and didn’t go to the hospital till morning.’

Shelley winced.

The thumb was healed now, and the twins were fascinated by his four-fingered hand, demanding to have another look. He showed the scar off almost proudly, but glancing sideways to check Shelley’s reaction and see if she minded – although she had assured him she didn’t

He was on a sickness benefit and spent the next two weeks painting Shelley’s cottage with a long-handled roller held in his left hand. A lot of paint spilled and the path around the side of the house became spattered with rusty droplets, like blood.

*

The second time Butterfly went away she was ready for it. Or almost ready.

The evening before they had visited two of his friends who rented a cottage up the coast. These friends had lived outside the law for most of their adolescent years, experimenting with LSD, speed, even heroin. But now they had turned a corner, married, borne a child, and were busily refurbishing their home while the husband worked for the local council.

‘It comes to all of us, eh?’ the young man said, fixing Butterfly with his eye. ‘Even you. Never thought I’d see you settling down with a good woman. Well, I’m all for it. And you’re looking well on it. You and Shelley must come out more often. We can go fishing. Jenny likes to have a woman to talk to.’

Butterfly was silent going home in the car.

In the night he sat up in bed and said – ‘I’ve got to go!’

‘Go where?’ The lavatory? But Shelley knew he was saying more than this. She had been expecting it.

He rose early, before the twins were awake, and packed his knapsack. He looked very sad.

Shelley stood about watching, not yet crying. ‘What about your things? Your records? Posters?’

‘Doesn’t matter. Leave them. I might be back one day.’

‘But you won’t?’ she said, probing.

‘No.’ He put his arms around her and when he drew back his eyes were brimming with tears.

So there it was.

She waited until the children were at school before she cried. And cried. In the following weeks she did a lot of crying, surreptitiously. Leaving the porridge to burn on the stove while she ducked into the bathroom to blow her nose on tissue paper and dab at her eyes with a towel. Damn. Damn.

The following March she came across it in the Herald. A tractor accident. Lochinvar Smith, killed instantly. She couldn’t bring herself to talk about it to anyone and make it more real. She was glad none of her family or friends knew his name. Poor Butterfly, always accident-prone. She mourned him in selfish secrecy.

Life doesn’t stop for bad news and mourning; it goes on. It went on for Shelley. The following year she engaged in a new relationship, this time with an older man. He was a kind man, settled, caring and supportive. He burnt off Butterfly’s careless rusty paint from the walls of her house and employed a tradesman to repaint it a pleasant grey with shiny white windowsills. Shelley went through her wardrobe and threw out a lot of her clothes which now seemed incredibly tatty and faded. How ever could she have lived like that?

During the Christmas holiday period they stayed for a few days in a motel overlooking the Wellington marina. The children, now nearly eight, played on the beach alongside the swimming pool and cautiously observed their mother’s new happiness. She sprawled on a blanket, laughing and squinting at the sun while her new lover photographed her proudly.

On New Year’s Eve Davie came to her from the edge of the water with something cupped in his hands. A butterfly.

‘Look, Mummy – it was on that piece of wood. It’s all wet. Will it be all right?’

‘It’s a monarch,’ Shelley’s new man told them.

‘Isn’t it lovely. It’ll be okay. We have to go up now and put the dinner on,’ the man said.

‘Oh but we can’t leave it!’ Maria said. ‘We’ll take it with us and put it by the heater. We have to see it get better.’

‘It’s only wet,’ Davie said. ‘It’ll dry out, won’t it? Will it be able to fly again?’

And he walked carefully, cradling the insect until they reached the motel.

There was a fireworks display planned to take place at Oriental Bay. Shelley and her new lover sat at the deep windows overlooking the city and watched the rockets wheeling and diving like birds with their tails alight.

The twins watched for some of the time. But they were absorbed also in the progress of the butterfly. It had become clear to Shelley’s new friend that it would die, and he said so, regretfully but firmly.

Shelley saw the twins’ long faces and moved in with her comforting noises. ‘Actually this butterfly’s the old year,’ she announced. ‘It has to die at midnight so that the new year can begin.’

They liked this idea and perked up immediately. Occasionally the delicately painted wings lifted slightly, a feeler waggled. Shelley sipped wine and watched the fireworks, one eye on the butterfly which was laid out on a stool, cushioned by a towel. The twins crouched alongside on the mat.

After eleven-thirty there was no movement from the coloured wings, but Davie said – ‘He’s not dead yet. He’s just tired. He can’t be dead for another half-hour.’

At midnight the butterfly was pronounced dead.

Shelley, the twins and her new lover held hands and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’. The twins had a little wine in two of the motel egg cups.

In the morning Davie came to Shelley with the butterfly in the box which had contained Christmas cards. It was lying on sheets of toilet paper. He handed her a card decorated in felt pen by himself and Maria.

‘We want you to send it to Butterfly,’ he said.

The card read – ‘Dear Butterfly, this is the old year which died at midnight. We are sending it to you because you are Butterfly and we’d like you to come back.’

‘Can we send it?’ Maria asked. ‘Do you know where he is?’

Shelley shook her head. She couldn’t speak.

 

‘Butterfly Smith’, © Marilyn Duckworth, was first published in Explosions on the Sun (Hodder and Stoughton, 1989).

Marilyn Duckworth is a featured author in The Writing Life, by Deborah Shepard, a unique, candid and intimate survey of the life and work of twelve of our most acclaimed writers.