Tinsel – A short story featuring Peta & Shrek from the Thornton Brothers Series, a new house just before Christmas, and an annoying neighbour.
* * * * *
“Foot rub for a shoulder massage?”
Shrek grabbed a chair from where they were neatly stacked by the wall, placed it in the middle of the room opposite mine and flopped down with an exhausted sigh.
I lifted my feet, placing them on his lap. Shrek’s fingers started to work their magic, kneading the tender parts of the balls of my feet, creating that delicious agony of pain that felt so good. I let my shoulders slump in relaxation, closed my eyes and rolled my head back.
And then he stopped.
I opened one eye, lifting my brow in question.
“I’m not falling for it this time,” he said, a slow smile spreading across his face as he held his hands away from my feet. “Agree to the shoulder massage first.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. “Fine.”
“Fine, what?” he prompted.
“Fine. Foot rub for a shoulder massage.”
Grinning in triumph, he placed his hands back on my feet, thumbs digging into the tendons. His eyes fell to the stacked boxes with my handwriting scrawled across the sides, dictating which room they belonged in. “I can’t believe you made us move this close to Christmas.”
“Well, I would have waited until afterwards. We had access to our old place until the first.”
“And I would have spent every day I had off stressing about it. This way it’s done. This way I don’t have to think about it. I can relax.”
“You never relax.”
“I do too.”
Shrek grinned and dug his thumbs in deeper until I winced and shifted in my seat. I didn’t tell him to stop though. I liked the pain, and he knew it. “We haven’t even got a tree. I’m finding one tomorrow. The kids need a tree. We need something to make it feel like Christmas.”
“Throw some tinsel around the one on the front lawn.”
Shrek merely shook his head and dug his thumbs in deeper.
For months we had searched for our perfect home. We weren’t asking much. Well, we didn’t think we were asking for much but Derek, our real estate agent and Shrek’s best friend, had insisted that finding a four bedroom, two-storey house on a quarter acre section within our budget was asking the impossible. But we knew what we wanted and we wouldn’t settle for less, despite Derek’s insistence that it would take months.
It did, but it was worth the wait.
The kitchen was what did it for me. As soon as I walked in and saw the morning light shining through the bay window, the spacious countertops and sizeable pantry, I knew it was the house for us. It also helped that it had a large section, Shrek’s one and only stipulation.
All day we had lugged boxes and furniture into the house, dumping it wherever we saw fit, promising ourselves that we would arrange it properly later that night. But night had come and the house was still filled with boxes and randomly placed furniture. I no longer cared if it got sorted. All I wanted was to get off my feet and possibly consume a glass or two of wine. Or maybe a bottle or two. I was in the process of deciding when Shrek’s offer of a foot rub piqued my interest.
“Feel good?” he asked, the attention of his hands moving further up my leg.
I nodded or moaned. I at least gave some acknowledgement of appreciation, but all too soon, his hands left my leg and he sank down on the chair, wiggling his shoulders in anticipation.
“Already?” I asked.
“I can keep going if you like, but I’ll be timing you to make sure you do the same.”
Hoisting myself from my seat, I had just taken up position behind my husband when the doorbell rang. It was ten o’clock at night. Why on earth was someone ringing our doorbell that late?
“I’ll get it,” I said, patting Shrek’s shoulder.
“You know I can’t do that,” I replied, making my way to the front door.
I was just about to twist the handle when the bell rang again. Whoever it was, didn’t have much patience.
“Hello?” I greeted the woman on our doorstep.
The woman breezed past, letting herself into our home. “I’m from next door,” she said, barely looking at me, and instead, casting her eyes around the hallway, leaning forward to peek into the various rooms that led off it. “Susan. The name’s Susan. You can call me Sue.”
Already she was making her way into the kitchen. “Peta, I know. I heard your husband—is he your husband? You never know these days. I guess it’s more politically correct to say partner, isn’t it? Anyway, I heard your husband yelling at you earlier. You know, when you first arrived, and he was backing the trailer into the drive and he couldn’t see your hand motions for direction because you were standing right behind the trailer and, duh, of course, he couldn’t see you. At first, when I heard you two talking, I thought we had a gay couple moving in. Peter. Shrek. All these strange names. I just didn’t think a woman would be called Shrek. Or Peter for that matter.” By this stage she had reached Shrek, sitting in the middle of the room, face held in a look of surprise. “Hi. I’m Susan.” She shook his hand vigorously, giving him no chance to respond to her greeting before continuing. “I was just telling your wife—you are his wife, right? We decided on that, didn’t we? Anyway, I was telling Peta here, how I thought you must be gay.”
Shrek opened his mouth but she was off again before any sound came out. “It was because I heard you yelling at her, ‘Peter!’ and of course, when a name is pronounced, you can’t really tell how people are spelling it, so to me, I just thought it was the normal Peter, you know, the Peter most people would think of when they hear the name, and of course, since you were yelling and your voice was decidedly male, I thought, well, you know what I thought. Of course, I realised just how wrong I was when I got the binoculars out and saw your wife’s pretty blonde hair. That hair couldn’t belong to a male. But then again, maybe it could. You never know these days. Anyway, here I am, prattling on. You must be exhausted from all the work you’ve done today. I counted sixty-three boxes carried in here. Sixty-three! And that’s only the small stuff. I didn’t count the chairs and couches or the beds and cabinets, just the boxes. Have you brought in the kitchen appliances yet?” Susan sat down on my chair. “I’d kill for a cuppa. Put the kettle on if you’ve got one, love.”
The sheer volume of words that fell from the woman’s mouth had me wishing I was back lugging boxes. I lifted one brow, mouth open and ready to send a sharp retort her way when Shrek hastily rose from his chair and began to search through the boxes. “We have got one here somewhere. Give me a minute and I’ll see if I can find it.”
Susan, sitting on the chair with her arms folded across her chest, smiled. “That would be lovely. Aren’t you just the nicest man for offering? So where did the name Shrek come from? Surely your parents can’t have named you that, not officially. It has to be a nickname. Please tell me it’s a nickname?”
“It’s a nickname,” I replied, pulling another seat away from the stack against the wall and placing it beside Shrek’s. There was no way I was sitting close to the woman.
“It’s an awfully strange nickname, and he’s not even woolly.”
“Found it!” Shrek called out, holding up the kettle through the doorway. I sent him a daggered look but he just grinned at me.
“Woolly?” I repeated.
“Like the sheep.”
“Oh. No, it’s because of his short hair and small ears that stick out more than the average man’s.”
“Hey!” Shrek protested from the kitchen. “They aren’t that small.”
Susan frowned. “Okay,” she said slowly. “I don’t think his ears are small, but each to their own, I guess. What’s your real name, love?”
Shrek yelled as he filled the kettle, “Dylan.”
“That’s a lovely name,” Susan shouted back. “Why someone would want to call you anything else is beyond me.”
Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I replied, “It’s from the movie.”
“The movie? Did they make a movie about the sheep?”
Silently, I counted to three in my head. It should have been ten, but I was afraid if I waited that long she would start on about something else. “Yes,” I replied. “Yes, they did.” It was easier to lie.
Rising from her seat, Susan started to pace around the room, examining the non-existent art on the walls. “The old owners were terrible people. Yelled at their kids constantly. I hope you’re not going to be like that. I noticed you had kids.”
“How observant of you.” I hoped I had bitten back enough of the sarcasm in my tone for it to go unnoticed by our visitor. “They are in bed at the moment, considering how late it is.”
She didn’t take the hint and lifted the top of one of our boxes, nosing through the contents until Shrek walked through, a single cup of tea in his hand.
“Milk or sugar?”
“I like it straight.”
He handed her the cup.
“I don’t know why you chose to move so close to Christmas. Seems a strange time of year to do it. I guess it wasn’t your choice though.” She stopped talking long enough to give the cup of tea in her hand a questioning look. “Is there anything to go with the tea? It’s not normal to invite people over and not offer them something to eat. Cake or a biscuit maybe? I could go have a rummage around—”
I hopped out of my seat before Shrek could hide in the kitchen again. “I’ll go look.”
As soon as I was out of eyesight, I leaned against the counter and took a deep breath before opening and closing cupboards, searching for the non-existent baking. The monotonous drone of her voice drifted through the doorway as though no walls separated us. Shrek’s uh-huh’s and hmm’s merely served as staccato-styled punctuation. I stood as long as I could in the kitchen, quietly contemplating how our perfect house had faded away in front of my very eyes. There was nothing I detested more than a nosy neighbour, and Susan was shaping up to be one of the worst.
When Shrek came to find me, Susan followed. Her eyes roamed the empty cupboards as her voice continued to fill the void. If I had been listening, I would have known her life story inside out.
It was midnight before she left. Every time I opened my mouth to tell her to leave, Shrek promptly spoke over me, always nervous of what would come out. He had always been too nice for his own good.
And he never did get that shoulder massage.
Not being able to leave the café for more than a few days, I rose early the next morning to pop into work and check on things. I didn’t bother telling Shrek. He would have scolded me. The staff could handle it. But this time of year my staff mainly consisted of University students on holiday and I wanted to check everything was okay. But my rising early was not early enough. I pulled open the front door, cup of coffee in hand, a dry piece of toast hanging out of my mouth, when Susan greeted me.
“Morning!” she chirped. “Have you got some sugar?” She stretched a cup towards me as though she expected me to fill it then and there. Tucking my files under my armpit, I pulled the toast from my mouth. “I’m afraid I’m just on my way to work.”
“Oh, I don’t really need sugar,” Susan replied, pushing past me once again. “I’ve just always wanted to do that, you know? Pop over to the neighbours to borrow a cup of sugar. I guess these days it’s not done like it used to be with a store on every corner. Well, not every corner but almost. And not that people would want to borrow sugar. White poison they called it on the news, did you see that? They said it is the most addictive substance on the face of the planet. Piffle is what I yelled at the TV. Have they not heard of drugs? It’s terrible the kids on drugs these days. It’s the video games and the face-bonking and the hash-tagging. It’s killing our young people.”
I was still holding the door open. “I was just leaving for work, actually,” I called out as she made her way into the lounge.
“That’s fine,” her voice wafted back. “I’ll just wait for Shrek to get up. He won’t be asleep for too much longer, will he? I noticed your curtains were still pulled, but when I saw the light come on in the kitchen, I knew that someone was up. You must be an early riser like me.”
Pulling the door closed, I breathed a sigh of relief when it finally muted the sound of her voice. I was a terrible wife, leaving her in the house for Shrek to discover, but I really needed to get to work. And if Shrek didn’t want me pissing off the neighbours by telling her where to go, then he could just deal with it.
When I arrived home, many of the boxes had been unpacked and the furniture re-arranged. There was a note on the table telling me that Shrek and the kids had gone to the park, and I wondered if it was because they wanted to, or if the friendliness of our new neighbour had finally worn down Shrek’s proclivity for niceness.
Just before I turned on the kitchen light, I remembered her words from the morning and decided against it. A light switching on might signal to her that someone was home and I needed a few minutes of peace.
For the rest of that day, every time I walked into the kitchen, I ducked below the window so she wouldn’t see me and I never turned on a light. For two days we lived in darkness. The kids thought it was a wonderful game, ducking beneath windows and walking from room to room with their hands stretched out before them like a strange game of Marco Polo. Shrek didn’t complain once. I guess hiding from our neighbour was more acceptable to him than confronting her. On Christmas Eve, the house only lit with candles, allowing only the faintest glow to escape around the edges of the curtains. Christmas morning saw us up before the sun, the kids jumping on the bed to wake us. But after hurriedly opening presents by the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, we rushed off to spend the day at Shrek’s parents’ house. Never before had I been so grateful to spend time with the in-laws.
And it worked. With no light, no movement and parking our cars around the opposite side of the house, we achieved the impossible. But when the doorbell rang late on the day after Christmas, I begged Shrek not to answer it.
“If you do, I’m not holding back,” I warned him. “I’ll let her have it. I am not living like this forever.”
Shrek merely laughed. He had a short memory and I could tell that already the sound of her voice had faded from his mind. He walked towards the door, but I raced ahead of him, determined not to let her push past me this time.
“Hello again.” My voice was cold and sharp.
“Again?” the man standing on my front step replied. “Have we met before?”
I shook my head, momentarily distracted by the fact that it was not Susan.
The man smiled warmly and held out a plate of biscuits. “Welcome to the neighbourhood. I’m your neighbour, James Anderson.”
“Our neighbour?” I repeated. “But I thought—”
“So you met Susan?”
I swallowed the lump in the base of my throat. “Is she your partner?”
The man laughed. “Heavens no! She was a house sitter I found online. She left a few days ago. Quite the chatty thing, wasn’t she? I wanted to come over and say hello earlier but I didn’t want to intrude, knowing how busy you’d be unpacking. And I wasn’t sure if you had actually moved in yet. For days it has looked like no one was home.”
* * * * *
In case you’re saying to yourself, “who the heck is Shrek the Sheep?” here’s a photo.
Back in 2004 he became a bit of a celebrity in NZ after he was discovered with over 6 years of wool growth.
If you want to know more about this wooly beast, check out this article.