Eddy Smallbone (orphan) is grappling with identity, love, loss, and religion. It’s two years since he blew up his school life and the earthquakes felled his city. Home life is maddening. His pet-minding job is expanding in peculiar directions. And now the past and the future have come calling – in unexpected form. As Eddy navigates his way through the Christchurch suburbs to Christmas, juggling competing responsibilities and an increasingly noisy interior world, he moves closer and closer to an overdue personal reckoning. Eddy, Eddy is a richly layered novel, deftly written with humour and pathos: a love story, peopled with flawed and comical characters, both human and animal; and a story of grief, the way its punch may leave you floundering – and how others can help you find your way back. Loosely mirroring A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Eddy, Eddy revels in language’s stretch and play, the blessings of story and songs, and the giddy road to adulthood.
Sue Lombardo’s house was in Dickens Street. There was a whiff still of the nineteenth century in Addington — the vanishing remains of brick factories, workers’ cottages, the faded glory of rail, and Great Men all over the street signage — Emerson and Macaulay and Disraeli and Ruskin were just around the corner. By great good fortune, hooray, hooray, Eddy knew both his Dickens and that old windbag Macaulay because Brain, if not a broad contemporary traveller, nevertheless journeyed lengthily in the written past. Brain had pressed various essays by Macaulay onto Eddy but the only thing he could remember was the little start he’d experienced reading the phrase some traveller from New Zealand. Presumably Macaulay Street was the windbag’s reward for acknowledging the vulgar colonials at the bottom of the world.
Dickens was different. Eddy had read his way through much of Brain’s Complete Dickens the summer he was twelve and — it pained him to think of this now — as a birthday present for Brain, Eddy had recited the opening page of Bleak House.
Brain, who regularly mourned the lost art of recitation, had been wet-eyed with joy. When winter fog settled over the city, one of them was sure to say to the other, fog everywhere, fog up the river . . . fog down the river . . . Never can there come fog too thick . . .
Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs, Eddy thought now — his favourite line, though he hadn’t known what collier brigs were at the time. And literary fog was all very well, the real thing quite another matter.
The dank days of the recent winter came queasily back to him, the city drear and bowed down. In the clinging fog and sclerotic traffic along Fitzgerald Avenue, Eddy had experienced a moment of terrible bleakness. He’d stared out the car window at the subsided buildings and barren lots, the huge leafless plane trees down the middle of the road. They were like great tired bodies, broken sentries in their ruined city. He had a fleeting glimpse of himself from outside the car, as if through a camera, a moment in a noir film: despondent guy on the brink of despair. Winter could do that, and last winter had been a crock.
But now, here was spring busting out all over Sue Lombardo’s cottage garden, a scatter of bluebells and grape hyacinths, jonquils and pug-faced pansies. A buoyant flowering of forsythia flanked one side of the house, a lone cabbage tree leaned towards the other. Eddy went down the west side to the back door as per instructions, knocked and let himself in.
Somewhere, the Messiah was playing. That was a surprise. He followed the music down the passage, Ev’ry va-al-ley, ev’ry va-al-ley, and found Sue Lombardo at her desk, turned ready to greet him. A pair of crutches was propped nearby. The sun poured through the window and made a dandelion halo of her silver hair. She was straight-backed and lean. Brown eyes, long face, kind of handsome. Eddy shook her outstretched hand, smooth-skinned and warm. He was shaking a lot of women’s hands these days.
‘Tēnā koe, Eddy,’ she said. ‘Excuse my not getting up.’ She patted her hips. ‘Double hip op. Or bilateral replacement, as the specialists like to call it. They love the big words, those guys. Have a seat in the sun.’
She nodded to the window seat where sat the cockatoo, already alert, spreading its lateral feathers. It was an umbrella cockatoo, he’d done his homework. He sat gingerly, but the bird immediately hopped up to the sill, gave a short, muffled scream, and raised its crest. Impressive. Perhaps he should set his own hair free, Eddy thought, give all due respect, etc. He nodded at the cockatoo instead and it screeched again.
‘Easy, Mother,’ said Sue Lombardo. ‘Not short for mother fucker, by the way.’
‘But it’s a he, right?’ The males had dark eyes.
‘Yes, though I didn’t know that at first — nor did the person who gave him to me.’
Eddy felt the bird inch closer to his head. It seemed to be vibrating.
‘He’s incubating another scream. I suggest you make us a cup of coffee? Give him time to settle. And then we can talk. Coffee’s in the first cupboard on the left. I’m milk, no sugar.’
He was also having a lot of coffee with women these days, thought Eddy in the kitchen, heating milk and waiting for the stovetop maker.
Sue Lombardo’s kitchen was more modest than his other clients’ though, a galley kitchen really, but with a most pleasant view: a good-looking vegetable garden, apple blossoms and a walnut tree on the fence line, spring flowers in clusters about the lawn. A black cat unfolded itself from a clump of jonquils and stepped elegantly across the grass. A little swell of happiness rose in Eddy. It was not unlike the view from their own kitchen window, but mostly it made him think of illustrations from his childhood picture books: crumpled children playing in suburban greenery. Alfie and Annie Rose and co. Cats and dogs and birds and garden geckos. Sun spots and warm stones. The reliability of the story in Brain’s voice. The comfort of Brain’s bulk.
In the study, they sipped coffee and Eddy basked in both sun and Messiah, which he knew by heart having sung it several times with the Cathedral choir, and because Brain thrashed it on the stereo through Advent to Christmas. The cockatoo thrummed and moaned beside him. Eddy kept his head very straight and still, though stray hairs maddened his cheek.
‘It’s three weeks since the surgery, and all’s fine,’ said Sue Lombardo (the two names were now forever yoked in his head), ‘but I can’t drive for several months. I’m hoping you’ll do the groceries for me and a bit of this and that. For instance, take Mother to the vet.’ She paused.
‘That sounds slightly sinister now that I say it aloud.’ She raised her cup in salute. ‘Good coffee. My car would be yours, of course.’
A lady’s car, thought Eddy. For sure. Not yellow, he hoped.
She did not seem a yellow car person.
‘Sounds good. What’s up with her? Him?’
‘Constipated! I’m the one who’s had surgery, but he seems to have gone out in sympathy. Cockatoos are prone, but once they start straining — that’s the little moans — you need the vet. We don’t want a prolapse.
‘Or do we?’ She narrowed her eyes at Mother.
Eddy laughed. ‘Really?’
‘Well. Sometimes I wish him gone. A double-edged present, to say the least. He wasn’t well socialised in his last home; the idea was I would rehabilitate him — but then the surgery came up and he was here too much by himself — I was at my sister’s for a fortnight but Mother wasn’t welcome . . . And now he’s in a state.’
As if to confirm this, Mother screamed directly in Eddy’s ear. He shot up and relocated to a chair in the crook of the old fireplace.
‘Mother mother mother,’ crooned Sue Lombardo.
She had a nice voice, Eddy thought. Seasoned. Probably a contralto.
‘He needs a more patient companion. And I need some quiet to get on with work. Otherwise I’ll strangle him. And you know, Hurt no living thing . . .’
‘Ladybird, nor butterfly, Nor moth with dusty wing,’ said Eddy, automatically. And groaned inwardly.
‘How nice!’ said Sue Lombardo. ‘I don’t expect anyone under sixty to know that.’
‘I am kind of sixty,’ said Eddy.
She considered him. ‘The Messiah?’
‘Messiah through to Mos Def. With an occasional weakness for musicals and classic Gospel.’ His tongue seemed to have developed a mind of its own.
‘Commendably catholic tastes,’ said Sue Lombardo. ‘Small c.’ She smiled and her face was almost beautiful. She had very white, even teeth.
‘So, what do you think? Some errands for me and friendship therapy for Mother?’
They talked details and times and the soprano sang ‘And suddenly there was with the angel’ and the black cat found its way to the office and copped a screech and a baroque crest performance from the cockatoo, but was quite unperturbed and arranged itself prettily at Eddy’s feet instead, eyeing his lap, then leaping fluidly and soundlessly onto it. He stroked the muscled back.
‘This one has adopted me,’ said Sue Lombardo. ‘She was very insistent. I had to put a cat door in. I like cats, but it’s puzzling to have two pets one has not actively chosen. She’s Puss. A real name seemed too active a commitment.’
‘A cat door’s quite the commitment,’ said Eddy. Puss purred loudly. What with the sun and the pleasing weight of Puss and the well-loved music, Eddy felt like purring himself.
‘So why pet minding?’ said Sue Lombardo.
Sue Lombardo’s vet — Friendly Vet — was at the bottom of the Port Hills, a drive that would once have taken fifteen minutes from Addington, but these days nothing was so predictable. A line of the loathed orange cones vanished overnight from one street and took up residence next day in another, scuttling route plans, denying access or crippling progress. Eddy imagined the transport planners, sociopaths all, plotting orange cone incursions and competing with each other to create ever more prolonged cross-town trips. Now, in an interminable line of cars, and Mother hissing balefully in his cloaked cage, Eddy cursed himself for not going on foot. He might have strapped the cage to his back, joggled the liverish bird into silence. Instead, Mother squawked and screamed and rattled the cage incessantly.
He turned up Sam Cooke and breathed slowly to calm his irritation.
He wasn’t intrinsically impatient. He had been Brain trained, after all, had grown up to a slow beat, well-schooled in the pleasures of deferred gratification. Come to that, he’d been further trained by Thos More; God knows, he required the patience of the proverbial. And animals required patience, didn’t they? Also learning an instrument. Also a sport. Ten thousand repetitions. He could queue with good grace too; he could, if necessary, take himself out of body, tread water in some null place untroubled by thought.
But a traffic queue — or to use one of Brain’s more hilarious circumlocutions, slow vehicular progress — made Eddy edgy and irritable, and almost afraid, as if his head might blow apart at any moment. Strange how a car could offer both heedless freedom and creeping unease. (‘The incubator of malaise,’ quoted Thos More, after his sole experience of sex — which had been in his mother’s car and not at all transcendent.)
In traffic queues, Eddy suffered eruptions of restless legs, a deranging complaint — most common in women, Thos had been pleased to inform him. This made him urgently want to burst from the car and run for the hills, or at least pump furiously up and down on the spot.
Probably no one would care if he did. There was a lot of aberrant community behaviour these days, minor league mostly, but sometimes startling. Last week, for instance, a stately Fendalton woman at the checkout had screamed and thrown both her umbrella and not-small bag at the trolley behind her when the guy emptying his groceries had fumbled and three bottles of wine had exploded on the floor.
‘My arthritis,’ said the guy, shrugging; he held up his knobbled fingers pathetically. Rose, the checkout manager, had taken the woman to the staffroom for a cup of tea but the wine guy had hung around, tense and useless, while Eddy and Mel-in supervision mopped up the great lake of Merlot and broken glass. ‘Quake brain, poor old chook, quake brain,’ said the guy at intervals, wringing his mangled fingers.
In the Botanical Gardens, a man shed all his clothes and climbed a gingko on a frigid July afternoon. Balanced precariously between the bare branches, he had sung workers’ anthems ever more desperately to a gathering throng, until the police arrived and talked him down. Dominic-in-refrigerated had described the incident to Eddy while they drank coffee and watched the trolley boys. The cops had covered the guy with a survival sheet and Dominic, midway through a run, had collected the scattered clothes — the singer had begun disrobing metres away, dropping his garments as he walked and wept. ‘Weirdest thing,’ Dominic told Eddy. ‘The boxers were Brief Insanity with, no kidding, RELAX in big letters across the crotch.’
Meanwhile, in Bishop Street, Brain and Eddy’s neighbour Loretta Peatling, a perfectly sober citizen of forty-seven years whose house was wrecked but did not apparently qualify for a rebuild, had now become completely maddened by her circumstances, writing letter after letter to the Editor, bailing up people on the bus and in the street, railing against the depredations of insurance companies and demanding signatures for a blazingly bonkers petition. Eddy had signed Loretta’s petition — who liked an insurance company? — mostly to make her go away; but Brain had invited her over for tea and ginger cake. She came every Saturday afternoon now, for the solace of Earl Grey and baked goods. Brain was big on comforting the afflicted. It was a ‘spiritual work of mercy’. (Thanks to Brain, Eddy could recite the full list of spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The only one he’d ever actually enacted was visit the sick, the rubric under which he rationalised spending much idle time in Thos More’s sleep-out.)
The car in front moved forward a promising twenty metres. It was a red Toyota Corolla with a stoved-in boot and dented license plate: CDGZ222; having stared at it so long, it was now forever and pointlessly in his memory. Eddy inched ahead too and the car’s movement silenced Mother — for long enough to make Eddy worry. Was he silently prolapsing? A prolapse, he had learned from Sue Lombardo, was the falling out of a body part. In the case of the cockatoo, his rectum. Holy God. What an unattractive word rectum was.
‘Hello?’ said Eddy. Nothing.
‘No straining please.’
Silence. Perhaps Mother had fallen asleep, worn out by all his clamour.
More movement up ahead. The car glided forward. Sue Lombardo’s car — he could hardly believe this development — was a Merc. It drove like a dream. Theoretically, Eddy was uninterested in cars, knowing only what he didn’t like (yellow Suzukis and SUVs, the ludicrously tiny and the offensively large), but along with a torrent of other disposable information he had also somehow absorbed miscellaneous particulars about classy car models. When Sue Lombardo handed him the car keys — why was this always plural when there was only ever one key? — he couldn’t disguise his surprise.
‘Unlikely, I know,’ said Sue, ‘especially given a vow of poverty, but I inherited it from my older brother. He was wealthy and unattached. He liked to shower me with worldly tat. It is a sinfully nice car.’
It certainly was. No doubt whatever. Though difficult to fully enjoy in clogged traffic. Eddy had revelled briefly in its liquid power along Brougham Street, but since then it had been all stop-start. And now the queue was stalled again.
‘What’s your problem?’ snapped Mother.
Sue Lombardo had prepared him for this. Despite her retraining efforts — you could apparently, with diligence and patience, teach a cockatoo any number of conversational gambits — Mother had maintained the unsubtle argot of his former life. Eddy should expect some semi-aggressive openers and a salty vocabulary.
‘My problem is our current lack of celerity.’ (Brain word.) At this rate they were still twenty minutes from Friendly Vet.
‘What’s your problem?’ Squawk. ‘What’s your problem?’
‘Limited time! Another job at three p.m. I’m a man of many parts.
‘Within a limited orbit,’ he added, and a small frost crept over his skin. He was a man in motion, sure, but to what end? He lived with a quinquagenarian, as Thos liked to style Brain. His city was cratered. He had a weird pet-minding business, with social work overtones. And a supermarket job that, despite its odd charms, was almost certainly going nowhere. He could not imagine a sincere vocation in New World. And now he was talking to a gender-fluid cockatoo.
‘I guess my friendship group is expanding. Or re-expanding.’ Did the bird’s silence suggest listening-with-interest?
Eddy had seen nothing of his friends over the winter. He had worked every possible shift at New World and when not there was sleeping off his efforts. There’d been a few nights with Clementine-from-checkout, a very nice person it was undeniable, but Eddy’s heart had not been in it. He hated himself on every score: for getting involved, for insufficient appreciation, for cutting it short. They sidled past each other now, their brief intimacy a scab and a rebuke.
He’d neglected his old choir friends too; as soon as the Cathedral had fallen, his interest in choir evaporated. Choir, parish and Modern Priest had been transplanted to an altogether less impressive space: no soaring ceilings, no creamy stone columns and sepulchral side altars. The Modern Priest was far too close now, all his bowing and bending and kneeling, his portentous arm sweepings right up in your face. Eddy had sung just once at the reconstituted cathedral, in the Street Requiem after the June quakes, and with gritted teeth. Then he’d left forever. Amen.
He whistled the doleful incantation from the opening of the Street Requiem and waited for Mother to protest. He did not like whistling, said Sue Lombardo. It was really curbing her self-expression.
‘Shut yer face!’ said Mother. ‘Shutyerface! Shutyerface!’
‘Shut your own,’ said Eddy, glad to find the cockatoo reliable in this respect, then gladder still because now there was a sustained loosening of the traffic. The Merc could express itself.
The bashed Toyota in front of them expressed itself too and, without indicating, did a lurching turn across oncoming traffic and disappeared down a side street, outraged tooting in its wake. Road etiquette had gone to hell with everything else. People did frantic seven-point-plus turns in the tightest of traffic, any lunacy to avoid orange cones glimpsed in the near distance. Eddy turned into Barrington and the needle sat on a dreary 25 ks. With luck, Sue Lombardo would dream up birdless errands further afield and Eddy and the Merc could stretch out on a highway.
She was rather wonderful, Sue Lombardo. Very direct. But warm. Kind of noble-looking, with those brown eyes and dark brows (more eyebrows, hmmm). She had a steady, unthreatening gaze.
The cockatoo was named after Julian of Norwich, she’d told him. Did Eddy know of her? He did not.
‘A remarkable woman,’ said Sue. ‘A fifteenth century nun — hence Mother Julian. Also an anchorite.’
Instantly, Eddy had been visited by a swift vision of Thos More, upright in bed, two duvets wrapped about his scrawny frame, declaiming the virtues of an anchorite life. He had shaved his head and it shone under the wall lamp, smooth and yellowed like an old swede. This was his response to being deflowered in his mother’s car.
‘It was whimsical,’ said Sue Lombardo. ‘I’d never named a pet before, it felt big! He’s a good icebreaker, at least.’
‘Hey, Icebreaker,’ Eddy called to the backseat where the decibels were rising again. ‘Could you please get a grip?’
‘No problem!’ shrieked the bird. ‘No problem!’
Julian of Norwich had apparently written the earliest surviving book in English by a woman. Well, good. And Eddy had learned a number of other things, small and less small, during the conversation with Sue Lombardo.
She was a passable tennis player, when her hips were working. She’d worked in Lima, Peru for ten years, been home six months. She was studying Jungian psychotherapy. And, of course, liked to whistle, milk in coffee, Baroque music fan, deceased rich brother, sister who didn’t welcome cockatoos.
They inched towards the hills, Mother blessedly quiet again. On the corner of Moana and Barrington there was action on the footpath, two dog owners facing off, a woman waving a plastic bag at a squat man who batted it away with angry hands. Three dogs moved unbothered about their owners’ legs, prospecting the ground and each other.
A dog-shit argument, Eddy was sure. Incredible the people who still brazenly left their dog’s crap on other people’s grass strips. He gave a blast of support on the horn (oddly high-pitched for a serious car) then worried it might be misinterpreted.
‘What’s the problem?’ squawked Mother. ‘What’s the problem?’
‘Thoughtlessness,’ said Eddy after a moment.
For weeks this last winter Brain had found regular dog deposits at the bottom of their drive when he collected the newspaper. Mostly, Brain was a stranger to irritation or rage. He could be cast down by serious world problems but in the face of everyday annoyances (toast landing jam-side down; a flat bicycle tyre; slow internet; mislaid sock — all things that caused Eddy to froth), Brain was composed and pacific. But the trespassing dog do flicked some dormant switch. His uncle was incensed — for only the second time in Eddy’s memory.
‘It’s the sheer thoughtlessness,’ said Brain, having consigned yet another leaving to the outside bin. ‘The quantum of things this sort of person refuses to think about makes me—’ He paused. He wasn’t sure what it made him? Mad? Sick? Done with life?
‘I would very much like to—’ Another pause. Ring the Council? Put up a sign? Lay poison? Pulverise the owner?
‘The sort of person who does this,’ said Brain, decisively, ‘is the sort of person who steals a library book with impunity. Or defrauds a pensioner. Or persecutes minorities. Or lays waste to Afghan villages with drone strikes. These people start small.’
Eddy enjoyed this outburst immensely. It bounced him from his winter slough for several days. Never mind the debatable moral equivalences — dogshit to drone strike, anyone? He just loved Brain’s fury.
Even more, he loved what Brain did next — parked himself behind the mingimingi bush in the pre-dawn for three days and finally caught the morally vacuous (Brain description) dog owner and his Rhodesian ridgeback as they took their pleasure on the driveway. Eddy was there too, at Brain’s invitation, and beheld with wonder his uncle’s firm, but exquisitely polite, despatch of the pair.
‘The terrible thing is that I enjoyed that,’ said Brain, afterwards. He was glum.
Eddy had no such misgivings. He regularly reprised the skirmish in the eternal cinema of his head. Brain, hard man of Bishop Street.
‘Fuck off!’ said Mother.
‘True,’ said Eddy. Brain wasn’t hard. But he did have a certain tensile strength. (Building phrase.) Years ago, he had gone very politely head-to-head with Mrs Evans, Eddy’s Year 7 teacher, who had taken Eddy’s books — The Bunny Suicides — from him in class reading. They were comic strips, not literature, she said, and their subject reprehensible.
‘Mrs Evans reminds me of Sister Duschene,’ said Brain to Bridgie and Ginge after he’d dealt with the matter.
This had led the three of them to wallow yet again in the legend of their intermediate teacher, long dead but living on in their combined memories, a penguin-suited gorgon of assorted villainies.
Eddy enjoyed a Sister Duschene story — in his mind’s eye she was a composite of Miss Trunchball, Mr Squeers and Mrs Coulter: sadistic, irrational and tyrannical, but demonically clever too — like a fallen angel. Sister Duschene stories had all the comfortable ghastliness of a scary children’s book.
He parked at last outside Friendly Vet. He opened the backseat door and lifted the cage gently.
‘Fuck off,’ said Mother, half-heartedly. Eddy adjusted the cloth around the cage so there were no gaps for light.
These days, it seemed, nuns could plough their own furrows — connected to their communities but sometimes living apart. They had jobs, they dressed like other women. They drank espresso. They gardened, whistled, and drove their dead brother’s Mercedes Benz. They swore at their constipated cockatoo.
‘Are you a nun?’ he had asked, incredulous, as Sue Lombardo arranged the cover on Mother’s cage. It had suddenly all come together: Julian of Norwich, a vow of poverty, the Messiah, and other things less concrete.
‘I am,’ said Sue Lombardo. ‘But be not afraid. I am robustly normal.’
Eddy carried Mother carefully up the steps to the clinic and through the door. He gave Mother’s name to the woman at the counter and found a chair in the waiting room. He put Mother on the empty chair to his right.
‘Problem?’ squeaked Mother, experimentally.
‘No problem,’ said Eddy. ‘We’re here now. So shut up, and give us some peace.’
Which was how I found myself once again seated beside Eddy Smallbone. For the first time in two years and three months.
He looked much the same crossing the room towards me, oblivious: a little taller and his hair scraped back now in the ubiquitous bun. He looked even more like the picture of the loving Jesus on my grandmother’s living room wall. Hollowcheeked, big-eyed, beautiful.
I could have punched him.
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