Fee closed the file – a hard copy file- and gave the smallest of sighs. She sat completely still until Robert’s soft knock and “the Minister’s here Fee” brought her back.
Smile on face and post-Covid elbows touched Fee McFadden “ Good Morning Phoebe” sat opposite the current Minister of Social Housing and talked through Design Developments latest project.
Phoebe Rose McFadden the oldest daughter of the ordinary. In her oversize private school uniform no-one had ever called her Phoebe. It was always Fee or Feefee. As she sat encased in the small, familiar toilet off the school hall she wondered why she’d bothered to come to this reunion. She was so busy and dragging tired. Waitressing and University and as always she felt out of place.
Those harsh voices penetrated the walls – the law student and the medical student.
“For God’s sake what can Hargraves see in her – Febblebum McFuckface. For God’s sake she’s only in the B stream.”?
“Who knows. Maybe looks are deceiving and McFuckface really can fuck.”
Fee lifted her brown Italian leather sandals towards her heart.
“God, have you seen what the silly bitch is wearing? Brown gardening sandals and that dusty dress looks like a cleaning rag.”
“She’s so insipid all pink and wishy washy –just like her art. Remember when old Mrs Georgiou told her “Fee life is not all white flowers and pink butterflies” and the silly little bitch cried.”
“What do you expect. Parents were ten pound poms – from the tenements in some ghastly northern industrial bog. Did you ever meet them? God, could cut his accent with a chainsaw and her! Mutter told me she showed up at the Uniform Shop with some of Feeble’s left overs. Silly bitch wanted the plastic bag back. Some ordinary Harrods bag. I mean it wasn’t even a carrier just some shop bag. Mutter thought she was so common. Couldn’t believe they’d let the child in let along those ghastly working class nobodies.”
The John Greer black sandalled heels clacked as they left that oppressive smell of Opium heavy in front of the mirrors.
Fee slowly lowered her feet, stood, pulled up her knickers, pulled down her dress and opened the door. She’d wondered why she’d been sitting at her table. She was with the “leftovers”, “the weirdos”, the paper dart throwing “I’m a muso” and the recovering stroke victim. Shit.
“I have a headache and I have an early lecture. Thank you for such a lovely evening. So nice seeing all the girls again.”
Fee suddenly noticed how old and worn Miss Hughes looked and how that “red lip” so intimidating at the start of the evening had migrated into cracks and grooves. The LBD, a Size 8 or 10, had seen more of these reunions than it cared to admit and the thin arms poking like scarecrow sticks from the short tight sleeves had the creped skin of age.
The McFadden-Hargraves wedding wasn’t large, wasn’t featured in the Women’s Weekly and no-one gave them a house and a car. Fee thanked everyone for the casserole dishes and cake forks with an enthusiasm so genuine her cynical friends were unnerved.
She’d been a surprisingly elegant bride. Who’d have thought “flowers and butterflies Feeblebum” would marry in a simple high-necked, off-white crepe gown with a small pillbox hat and shoulder length veil.
Fee had heard the intake of breath as she’d walked into the small, old country church in her simple clothes holding the brilliant ball of rust and yellow dried flowers. She’d also heard the loud whisper
“God it’s so plain”
She took no notice and fixed her eyes and attention on the two divine young men at the end of the walk. The besuited, darkly handsome David Hargraves and his best friend and best man Simon. They’d met at playcentre, been to primary school together and were in the same class all the way through Grammar. The doctor and the lawyer.
It wasn’t that David was any cleverer than Fee; just that she stayed home with the children. James first and then Harriet, beautiful, hilarious little people adored by grandparents and family friends.
Fee transformed that first mustard yellow-Karitane poo coloured little box of a house into magazine style white and grey, cream and green. And she learned how to play the superficial style game. Every two or three years she bought something black – a dress, a suit, an improbable hat. She learned. She even wore a heavy costume jewellery gold chain worthy of Alexis and learned how to make that one large glass of wine last all night.
It was after Harriet started in Middle School that Fee found the first home unit. So overgrown. So sad. Just waiting for Fee to love and care for it and make it glow again. She used the money her Dad had left her.
She heard David tell Simon, “That’ll keep her focused for a while.”
Radio blaring Fee cleaned, filled the skip, took out rotten curtains and aged blinds, stripped wallpaper and washed, and painted “ any colour so long as it’s white” and gardened. A young University student, Robert Tucker, had answered her ad for a gardener. He did a lot of the work that was too heavy for Fee.
Fee left the bathroom and kitchen as they were but replaced the stove and put in a simple range hood. She and Robert took up all the lino and in one afternoon “Carpet by Demand” had all the new stuff down.
Fee had never thought she’d be good at budgeting but she’d written it all down before she started and her Dad “the painter and decorator” would have been so proud.
David had looked shocked when Fee said, “No I’m not selling it. I went to Arthur McIroy at the bank and he said I should get it revalued and use the equity to do another one – such fun – and Robert says he could help me for a year or two. He wants to do a Masters and then a PhD.”
And that’s how Design Developments had started. Just small. And when she’d cleaned them, gardened them and made them a home, Fee liked tenants who would want to stay – single mothers, older ladies. She kept being told her rents were on the low side but Fee didn’t care; how could she explain it wasn’t about the money – Feeblebum McFuckface was doing it!
Fee never built anything from scratch; what she and her “team” were known for was their renovations. They were an interesting and eclectic group “her team”. Dr Robert Tucker the Samoan New Zealander with a PhD in Pacific Studies now an equal partner and Project Manager. And the rest of them. On the Friday afternoon family barbecues they’d eat, talk and laugh how they should paint their flags on the staffroom wall.
Neither Fee nor Robert knew how the Minster had discovered Design Developments but they’d been invited to meet “when he was next in Auckland” and they’d been asked if they could help refurbish and renovate some of the existing housing stock.
Robert – Fee had always wondered why he wasn’t called Bob – was a master of organisation. Work flowed. Money flowed. Money was made. Children grew. Children married. Grandchildren appeared. Sometimes Fee, wife of the gorgeous, clever Judge David Hargraves, couldn’t believe her life was hers.
Fee had found the small shimmering paua shell the first time she and David had walked on their beach. She’d laughed and put it in her pocket as she said
“This is for always.”
It became one of those irrational talismans and Fee’s fingers would close over it before meetings, negotiations, events.
It had been a busy six months. David had been seconded to Rotorua and Fee had faced one of the most demanding experiences of her life – speaking to the annual School Mother & Daughter afternoon tea. An unheard of honour for someone not a Dame or dangling the NZOM.
There was a gasp as Fee was introduced and walked to that heavy old-world lectern. She’d come in her jeans, in her work boots with her toolbox and gloves and the cap she wore to keep off the sun and the rain.
She looked down at the rows of incredibly beautiful little and bigger girls and their mothers and released her fingers from the shell as she said;
“I was only in the “B” stream when I was here. I liked flowers and butterflies and I wore dusty cotton dresses and brown sandals and my Dad had the strongest Geordie accent you could hear south of the Equator. What I want you to know is that you don’t have to be in the “A” stream to succeed. You can be in any stream at all and use your unique talents and gifts for yourself and the world.
I have been so lucky that the man with that Geordie sound anf my Mum worked so hard and saved so hard that they were able to leave me money to buy my first small, unprepossessing property and I was able to start the team that I am part of today. I have traveled far because I am part of a team.”
One by one Fee called out her team from the wings of the stage and explained their role in Design Developments.
“Enjoy your time here. Make the most of it but remember the talents you may find in yourself and remember -you don’t have to be a doctor, a lawyer or a dentist – you can be anything you want to be.”
Later the team would say they thought the clapping by the mothers was polite but the cheering by the girls was “wild”.
“I’ll be away for the weekend. David and I need a break. Ring if it’s urgent. You know the drill – if there’s an elephant in the bathroom.”
Fee parked her ute by the side of the bach. She smiled at the red hibiscus and thought what a great job the local gardener was doing. She’d stopped in Thames and bought the final bits and pieces of food.
Fee opened the windows, pulled up the blinds and smiled again. God she loved this place. So many wonderful times. Happy memories. Happy days with Jeanette and Simon and their kids. James and Harriet the little sandcastle builders then all those tents on the lawn with boys from school and girls from school. Barbecues and towels everywhere and yelling and shouting and all so alive. How she’d loved it. Quieter now with Harriet in Melbourne and James in London.
How odd. Towels in the bathroom. And when she turned back the duvet there was a definite body depression on her side of the bed. “Weird as”, thought Fee. “Who could have been here”? She changed the sheets and the pillow cases. It was when she was cooking dinner she found the rubbish in the bin. And later showering before David got in from Rotorua; the shampoo block in the shower.
“Probably one of the visitors from Easter” said David “Don’t fret Fee, let’s enjoy the weekend.”
The young man she’d hired to check on the bach wasn’t what Fee had expected. Dark and penetrating eyes and small fringe of a beard edging his jaw. An incongruous thin silver bangle. Fee wasn’t sure how he’d done it but he had photos. She breathed a relaxed sigh. It was David and Simon. Silly her. She smiled.
“I have a video he said.” Afterwards Fee thought her heart had actually stopped. David and Simon arms around each other. Long soft lingering kisses and then the blinds coming down. He waited until Fee had started to breath
“In the circumstances we suggest our clients get an STI test”.
Fee’s fingers closed around the shell.
It hadn’t been difficult to value all the assets, to put together a non-negotiable offer
Phoebe decided hardcopy not email. Too easily shared. She’d been stunned then angry then realised how sad for David and Simon – all those years. The offer was fair, reasonable and simple. Inside the file on top of the papers Phoebe placed the sealed envelope with the single photo. On the back she’d written “Thank you for a wonderful life. I wish you both well.”
And then she rang Tim their lawyer. “I want you to arrange for David to call to see you…”
Rosemary Balu. Rosemary Balu is the founding and current Managing Editor of ARTbop. She purchases her power from Trustpower and is a beneficiary of the Tauranga Energy Consumer Trust. Rosemary has arts and law degrees from the University of Auckland. She has been a working lawyer and has participated in a wide variety of community activities where information gathering, submission writing, community advocacy and education have been involved. Interested in all forms of the arts since childhood Rosemary is focused on further developing and expanding multi-media ARTbop as the magazine for all the creative arts in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.