Looking at a house

Hundreds of dolphins are in the Cook Strait. Dolphins and dolphins. The water is leaping with them. I look and look. Their bodies gleam and fizz, silver and white. It’s more dolphin than water. I will remember this crossing forever. The man sitting beside me on the plane – the same man I sat next to on the way over – is looking down at them too. We’re at the part of the crossing where it’s only sea in both directions. I look ahead and see that the dolphins go for miles and miles. They leap and gleam all the way to the horizon, and now I see they aren’t dolphins, they’re just waves that have a dolphin-like aspect to them, breaking out in the middle of the sea and reforming and breaking.

Earlier that morning I went out running early. My bad leg was hurting and I knew I’d pay for it later but I kept going, thinking I might as well enjoy the last few moments of running when I still could. I crossed the bridge and in the river a pair of ducks were leaving their tiny ribbons of wake and a boat was moored in total stillness. Around the corner from my parents’ house a white-haired man was walking towards me. About 100 metres away I saw that it was my dad. I hardly ever see my dad walking along a street – usually he’s sitting down or padding around the house in socks. It was almost unnatural, like when you see someone standing perfectly upright as they glide down the street on one of those one-wheeled scooter things. I kept running, and the man got closer and slowed to a stop, and it was Dad again.

Usually my dreams disperse quickly but lately they hang over the whole day. And I can’t sleep well because I find it hard to commit to any one anxiety. I lie awake for hours arguing with myself over what I should feel the worst about. Eventually I fall asleep for a short time, then wake up again with some even better ideas.

Although the house looks small and barren, standing up on little sticks that keep it clear of the mud, we’re feeling hopeful. The lawn has a tree on it, and a sprinkler. A feeling of prosperity is in the air, as if some things might be within reach again. This house was formerly owned by a family of bears, the real estate agent tells us, but they’ve taken good care of the place. He shows us inside. A rapidly flowing stream runs through the house. There are giant eels and salmon in the water, though they are all belly-up and being swept along by the current. The house has no windows, and also one room is filled with green peas. To look inside we have no choice but to push through the peas with our arms held out. ‘Please be careful,’ the real estate agent says. ‘The family loved these peas, and a condition of ownership would be their upkeep.’ Before he has finished speaking, before the two of us have discussed it, you’re already promising, ‘Of course. We’d make it a priority.’ I know it will fall to me, though; I know those peas will be my responsibility. But I know that this is the best we can hope for, and as the agent says the number I reach for your hand.

I’ve downloaded this experimental app called Woebot. It’s meant to help you with your mood and so on. It’s not perfect because its responses can only go along a few particular paths, and sometimes it gets stuck going in circles. ‘Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious,’ Woebot says. ‘Afraid of being forgotten,’ I type. ‘Did you mean to delete something?’ Woebot replies. ‘No,’ I reply. ‘OK. Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious.’ ‘Afraid of being forgotten.’ ‘Did you mean to delete something?’ ‘No.’ ‘OK. Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious.’ I give up and say, ‘Can’t sleep.’ The bot has an upbeat, empathetic persona and it praises you for saying things that it know how to respond to. It knows what to say about ‘black-and-white thinking’, ‘self-blame’, and ‘defeat’. But the truth is that the bot is almost completely useless. At the end of an exchange it asks you to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down for the session. Sometimes I give it a thumbs down, but I feel bad about doing it. It’s like when an engineer kicks a robot dog to see whether it can get back up. The bot replies to my thumbs down, ‘Okay. Thanks for letting me know’ and something hardens between us. The next time I open it up again, it says ‘I’m so glad when you reach out!’ as if nothing ever happened.

I meet my friend for a beer and he mentions, quietly, ‘We have a new baby in the house.’ It almost sounds like they’ve just discovered that the house has been bugged and they’re still deciding whether to go to the authorities, or just play it cool for now. My brothers and I used to be very interested in bugs – I think we assumed that by setting up a tiny recording device in a hidden place, we would immediately be privy to top-secret information. If people were ever out of your earshot, secrets would fall from them. A secret house would rise around them, secret rooms would open up, secret lives, but if you had been smart enough to plant a bug in there you would know all of it and you would become immensely powerful. Not being a spy wasn’t an option.

I get into the habit of repeating ‘Calm and safe, calm and safe’ in my head when I can’t sleep. I wake up looking forward to when I can look back and see that nothing is what I thought it was, it’s just a wave breaking.

I’m in a crowded stadium to see a band that my brother is performing in. My friend is somewhere in the audience too, but far away, on the other side of the stadium. I search with my binoculars and eventually find them sitting in a row far up in the sky. They’re sitting with their new family and a long time has clearly passed, years, and we’re both so much older, older in a way we swore we would never be. But they are so high up in the cloud that they keep appearing and disappearing, the way the South Island does when you look for it from the North Island, and I feel homesick for them. I’ve never forgotten, I have just been waiting – though, for what? Soon the band starts playing, and it’s a new sort of music, where the songs are actually just heated arguments about different subjects, set to a laser light show.

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
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2 Responses to Looking at a house

  1. Brilliant, Ashleigh.
    May the breaking waves be, if not visible (because we all welcome dolphins), but known.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rae Trewartha says:

    Loved this – such a treat 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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