Cam’s ambitions are straightforward: study Business English in Wellington for six months, then return to Vietnam to build a promising career. She doesn’t need any complications, least of all those created by Bree, her host-family’s secretive, troubled, teenage daughter. But when a dinosaur is being (very noisily) built in the bedroom next to yours, and a meteor-strike is threatening, it’s not always possible to avoid being sucked in – especially when there’s an extinct animal in your own history. And one winter night in Karori, Bree’s past resurfaces as well.
There’s a phrase in English: the elephant in the room. As far as I can tell, the only reason for it being an elephant is that it’s big enough that no one can avoid seeing it. Perhaps what’s happening here is something even bigger than an elephant. A dinosaur in the room.
I broach the dinosaur in the room to Sue and Martin. Why is Bree building a dinosaur? Is it for school?
They look at each other, Martin in the armchair and Sue on the couch, a cup of tea in his hand and a phone in hers, conversation flickering between their eyes. Simultaneously, they return their gaze to me.
“It’s just something she enjoys doing, that’s all,” says Sue. “A hobby.”
“So it’s art?” I run through my mental dictionary for the correct word. “Sculpture?”
“Have you seen the dinosaur?” Martin asks me. He’s wearing a polo shirt with the logo of his sailing club on the pocket, and it’s quite apparent where he’d rather be.READ MORE
I shake my head. “She doesn’t let me in her room.”
More eye conversation. “We were hoping …” Sue says. “Bree’s always been a very shy girl. She doesn’t have any friends, really. We were hoping that having you in the house would encourage her to talk to people a bit more.”
Bree does have friends, though. I’ve seen her with them from the bus with their tartan skirts hitched up, passing headphones between each other, laughing, taking up the whole width of the footpath, drinking Coke. I saw her in McDonald’s once, with a group of boys and one other girl, flicking fries at each other’s faces. She’s not shy, but a veil descends around her in this house. She is not, to use another phrase, at home when she’s at home.
“I’ll try and talk with her,” I say, smiling, but there’s a hint of anger creeping up inside me. I want to help, but I pay them two hundred and forty dollars a week, and I’m here to study to further my career and I have my own family who need me. Bree – Bree cannot be my responsibility. I swallow the anger. Sue and Martin have not picked up on it, and I think that is for the best. It is important to me that I’m a good guest in their home.
“What’s a good recipe?” I ask Sue, moving on. “I’d like to bake something new.”
“Edmonds,” replies Sue, pulling a spiral-bound book from the shelves and handing it to me. “Real Kiwi icon.”
I’ve noticed how people emphasise things as cultural pointers but don’t explain them, only serving to mystify them further. Still, I’m sure it’s meant to be helpful; I take the book and thank her and she smiles in return and says it’s no problem at all, that she’s pleased I’m interested. Martin turns on the news and I stretch back on the sofa to flick through the recipes.
I make chocolate-coconut brownies. The recipe is easy, almost soothing – one saucepan and then into a tray, the oven. I take some time to myself while it’s cooking; headphones in, idle internet browsing.
On my way back, alerted by the oven timer, I almost trip over something large and white, about the size of a soccer ball, sitting halfway down the stairs. Bree runs out, grabs it and cradles it to her chest, mouths an apology and runs back to her bedroom. I only catch a glimpse of it, so I tell myself it was most probably a rugby ball. Except one end was considerably thinner than the other. Like a giant egg.
A few minutes later she follows me down. When I cut the brownies she takes one from the rack before it’s cooled, bites a chunk out of it hungrily. I think I see the hint of a smile on her face. I ask what’s your dinosaur, Bree? and panic clutches at my chest. I want to hear her say a sculpture, and at the same time, I’m not sure I do.
To my surprise, her face breaks into a clear smile. She perches on a stool, talks semi-incoherently as she forces the rest of the brownie into her mouth.
“It’s a Titanosaur,” she says, “A sauropod, like the Diplodocus or Brachiosaurus, only they came a bit later.”
I struggle to process the words, cycling between the known and unknown, a repeating translation running through my head as I scrub the saucepan and wipe the silicon baking pan.
“Long neck.” It’s the over-enunciation people tend to do when they underestimate my English, but it don’t sound like she’s being unkind – more that she’s lost in her own world with the dinosaur and is unsure how to communicate with people from outside it. “Eats plants.”
She grabs an envelope from the table behind her and starts to draw on the back of it. The outline of a dinosaur quickly emerges, a blue, long-necked creature. She finishes by drawing grass around its feet and labelling it in large, rounded capitals: TITANOSAUR.COLLAPSE