Laura Southgate’s debut novel is a dive back into flatting and uni and that particular weariness that comes from never having enough money or self-esteem. Also featuring a couple of emotionally absent parents and a gross, abusive boyfriend, the book feels grimy and creepy and hungover a lot of the time – but most of all, there’s the disconcerting sense that Southgate is looking straight at you. Thank god it’s also witheringly funny: imagine a badly jaded Jane Austen eyeing up Aro St and you get the idea.
The Boyfriend won Southgate the Adam Foundation Prize, previously awarded to intimidatingly great IIML alumni including Ashleigh Young, Hera Lindsay Bird, Catherine Chidgey, Tayi Tibble and Eleanor Catton.
In this extract, 19 year-old Erica moves in with her much, much older boyfriend, and meets his family.
I went to one flat interview. At the front door was a girl I knew from school. She was a year ahead of me but she also did art, and we had been billeted together on a trip to Auckland to visit Elam art school and do a tour of the galleries. Even though she was older, it would be fair to say she was more of a loser than I was. Her hair smelled like she didn’t use shampoo. But now, when Donny and I showed up at her place, it was as if she didn’t even remember me.
Still, I was hopeful. Maybe this was just who she was now. A year at university had turned her into a cool person. Cool people acted aloof as a sign of acceptance. I stopped flat hunting for a week, waiting for her call, but she never rang.
Donny had bad luck too, so we tried the university accommodation service. It turned out they couldn’t really help singles.
‘It’s more designed for married people,’ said the woman, frowning at Donny.
‘What about if you’re engaged?’ he asked.
‘Are you two engaged?’
He smiled coyly and put his arm round me. ‘I’m working on it.’
I knew Donny was bullshitting, because we’d talked about how dishonest marriage is. People should just be free to love who they love, and be open about it. You shouldn’t have to pretend or sneak around because of some contractual obligation.
‘There are a couple of one-bedroom places on the board up there,’ she said, without lifting her gaze from her computer screen.
‘Great,’ said Donny, giving me a squeeze as we stood up. ‘Let’s take a look, honey bun.’
Maybe because I knew he was faking, it didn’t feel that weird. It was kind of almost fun. We could be fake flatmates – a fake couple, even. It was so meaningless it was almost subversive.
So we ended up with a flat on Aro Street all to ourselves. The rent was cheap because it was in need of refurbishment. The wallpaper was coming off the wall in the living room, the window in the front door was cracked and missing a piece, and the floors were wonky and carpeted with what used to be multicoloured stripes.
It was unfurnished, apart from a broken washing machine and a gas oven, so we had a bit of stuff to get before we could move in properly. Alison started setting aside some things for us, and Donny got on the phone to his sister Polly in Palmerston North. She and his other sister and his mother had some things he could take. The only catch was we would have to come and get it.
‘Polly says she’d like to meet you. She’ll drive us back with the stuff. What d’ya reckon?’
‘Okay.’ Donny made a noise that was almost a laugh, somewhere between a gasp and a hoot. ‘Nobody’s ever met my family before. I mean, it’s kind of strange.’
We took the train up on Friday night. Polly met us at the station. She was older than I expected, like someone’s mum. It was weird to think she and Donny could actually be related, that she had memories of him as a little kid.
We put our bags in her spare room. ‘Our mother’s coming round, Plasma,’ she said when we assembled in her kitchen.
‘Plasma?’ I said, but Donny just gave me a blank look like I should get with the programme.
‘Our mother?’ said Donny. ‘I thought she was barely mobile.’
‘She’s mobile enough. Raewyn will bring her.’
‘Oh what joy, all three of you at once.’ Polly shook a jar of biscuits at me. ‘Have one, my dear,’ she told me gently. ‘You’re going to need it.’
‘It’s hash,’ she said, as I took my first bite.
‘Erica doesn’t do drugs,’ said Donny.
‘I suppose we have Nancy Reagan to thank for that. Is that true, darling? You’re going out with my brother and you don’t do drugs? How do you manage that?’
‘I drink a lot.’
Polly laughed. ‘Oh, really? Hope I’ve got enough wine.’
Donny adopted the haughty look he reserved for circumstances such as this. ‘So what’s for dinner? Apart from hash cookies?’
‘Don’t joke. Mum had one once. She was fine.’
‘Give her a break, she’s been knocking back the diazepam since the war. As well she might with that husband.’
Their dad was dead. I hadn’t heard much else about him except that he’d drunkenly slammed the door on Donny’s pinky when he was five. It remained crooked, however many decades later.
‘What about Sister Rae?’
‘Sister Rae does not partake. You any good at cooking, Erica?’
‘Umm, I did Home Ec in Form One and Two.’
‘Oh, good. Should be fairly fresh in your mind, then.’
‘Har de har har har,’ said Donny.
I smiled at her with what I hoped was an aggressive politeness. ‘I’m happy to help,’ I said.
‘You know we’re both vegetarians, don’t you?’
‘Plasma, you’ve been vegetarian for thirty-odd years. He’s converted you too, has he?’
‘Kind of,’ I said. ‘I mean I was already –’
Donny interrupted. ‘She has a mind of her own you know.’
What had tipped me over into full vegetarianism was Donny’s systematic destruction of the ants at Foster’s flat. He’d led a whole ant army along a sugar trail to the sink where he’d annihilated them with hot water, despite my pleading and crying and screaming at him not to. I hated watching the transition from plucky creatures to inert dots swirling in the whirlpool. Desperate wriggling, then surrender. ‘Really, Erica?’ he’d said. ‘If you’re so worried about hurting these mindless insects, you should take a moment to think about those birds and mammals you’re so fond of eating.’ I’d had to admit, he had a point.
‘No thanks, Erica, I don’t need any help,’ said Polly. ‘Perhaps you two would like to go in the garden and pick some flowers for Mother?’
‘I’m going to open that wine first,’ said Donny.
We were getting boozed on the lawn when a car pulled up.
Raewyn got out first, a thin, unsmiling woman in a white dress. It wasn’t all that sunny, but she had black glasses on anyway. She began helping her mother out of the passenger seat.
‘Hello, Mother,’ said Donny, as an elderly but by no means frail lady elevated herself elegantly into the structural support of her daughter’s arms.
Raewyn handed Margaret her stick. It was wooden and knotty, like something that had been in the family for generations.
‘Hello, dear,’ Margaret said to Donny, giving the stick a gentle flick.
Donny remained in his sideways reclining position, twirling his wine glass. ‘We picked you some flowers.’
Margaret stood still for a moment and regarded him impassively. ‘Did you now?’
I don’t know if it was the wine or the cookie, but I felt quite relaxed after dinner. I sat on the floor with one of Polly’s cats and felt a reassuring sense of invisibility, patting him. It’s just you and me, Rusty, I thought, and looked up to check no one had heard me.
‘Just as well you never had any children,’ Margaret was saying, looking gravely at her son.
‘That we know of,’ said Polly quietly. ‘All my children. Barren. Aren’t you, girls? Defective genes.’
Raewyn winced. ‘Mum,’ she said. ‘Let’s just sit for a while.’
‘All right then, let’s just sit. Wait on, aren’t we already just sitting?’
‘Would you like a top-up, Mother?’ asked Polly, heading for the kitchen.
‘No, she wouldn’t,’ Raewyn called after her.
‘Yes, thank you, Pauline.’ Margaret looked at me. ‘Do you like children, Erica?’ she asked, as if children were something pervy or absurd.
I tried a smile, knowing yet reassuring, in case I’d misunderstood. It seemed to work because she said, ‘No. That’s the idea. Jolly nuisance.’
Polly filled Margaret’s glass. ‘Thank you, darling.’
‘Gizz us it,’ said Donny, and took a couple of chugs from his replenished glass before refilling it to the brim.
Margaret looked at me again. ‘Has she given you one of her special biscuits, dear?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘I can tell. You’re so still. Like Raewyn here in one of her trances.’
‘I don’t take drugs, Mum.’
‘I never said you did, dear.’
‘Yes you do. The difficulty will be standing up,’ she said. ‘It’s what they call a “body stone”. What you need is a nice stick like mine. It’s one of those things you can get away with as you age, a stick. It’s rather distinguished I think. You couldn’t get away with it, dear, you’d look odd.’
‘That’s probably true.’
‘So you’re in a new flat now, Mother? Is it to your liking?’
‘It is serviceable, thank you, Roger.’
I looked at Donny. Roger? He gave his mother a pained expression. ‘Please don’t call me that.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m old. I forget these things.’
‘My name is Donny.’
She sighed and clasped her knees with a swooping motion, as though committing it to memory. ‘Right-o, Donny it is.’
‘So you live in what, a granny flat?’
‘It’s a self-contained unit on Raewyn’s property. Does the job. Yes. We keep an eye on each other, don’t we, Rae?’
Donny frowned. ‘What happened to all my things, Mother? Did you keep those drawings I sent you when I was in that horrible place?’
‘You should see all the boxes we’ve got, isn’t that right, Rae? There’s no room in the garage yet. Have a look through while you’re here, dear, I don’t know what’s in them.’
‘Mother? Remember those drawings?’ I wished he would shut up. The need in his eyes was painful.
Margaret looked away. ‘Oh dear. That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?’
‘I have to show you, man,’ Donny said, turning to me. ‘You will not believe your eyes.’ He turned back to Margaret, who was smiling through her frown. ‘Remember, Mother? Those psychedelic drawings? You said you wanted to frame them. Remember? You thought they were beautiful.’
‘Yes,’ she said, her smile contracting. ‘Those drawings, yes.’ She went quiet after that, like she was remembering something about Donny that only a mother could know.
The Boyfriend, by Laura Southgate (VUP, $30) is available at Unity Books.