Fault by Pip Robertson


I wanted the house for the magnolia tree. I needed a clean start. The tree, I thought, could be a new kind of marriage.

The agent said the house had a leaking roof, but it was small and easily replaced. The magnolia, though, was 80 years in the making. He said that was something money couldn’t buy.

Although I was buying it, of course.

My lawyer checked the land records, and found that a fault line cut right through the property. She tapped her pen on the bright red line and told me I should think hard about whether to proceed.

I said I still wanted the house.

She sighed. ‘In that case, let’s try to reduce the price.’

She put in a lower offer, citing the risk of catastrophic rupture. But the agent called us back and said the owners wouldn’t budge.

‘Well, I guess we all have to die of something,’ I said to him.

‘I love it,’ he said, and laughed in a way that made me think he had misheard, but maybe he was just thinking of his commission.

The magnolia tree is visible from all rooms on the southside of the house. I can even lie in the bath and look at it. At night, going to sleep, I imagine its roots reaching deep into the earth.


My friends sat me opposite a man who was settling down after years of travel. They made a point of telling me he was single. I got the sense they had said the same about me to him. The subject of my new house and the fault line came up. No one said I was foolish to buy it. The consensus was, you live in this city, you live with the risk. You bolt your bookcases to the wall, stock emergency water and emergency whiskey, and live with the risk.

The man sitting opposite had been in Kobe, Japan, when the earthquake struck there. It had been early morning and he was in a nightclub, still out from the night before.

‘The worst thing was that I shat myself,’ he said, and looked at me. ‘I mean literally. Shit everywhere, and no running water for days.’

Someone laughed. Someone down the table said, ‘Please, we’re eating.’

‘I’m just saying what happened.’

But I knew he wasn’t really trying to tell me about an earthquake, or that twenty-something years ago he lost control of his body. Really, he was telling me that he still had a body. Really, he was issuing an invitation.

I felt sorry for him.

I’m done with bodies, I wanted to explain. It’s better for everyone this way.


Each time it rains, the water stain on the bedroom ceiling grows. I lie in bed, picking out forms: bearded faces, boats and lions.

There was an earthquake. I was at work when it happened. It wasn’t a big one – only a few of us even got under our desks. When I arrived home, it looked as if someone had been in my house. Two glasses were shattered on the kitchen floor. I swept them up, and closed the cupboard doors that had swung open, and straightened the crooked picture frames.

The magnolia has come into leaf and started dropping its flowers. They land on the steep path to the front door, as big and slippery as banana peels.

If I had to name my regrets, I would avoid the particulars of the argument in the hospital car park. I wouldn’t talk about the time and manner of my leaving. Instead, I would say that I haven’t always been as patient as I could be. I haven’t always been as kind.

Every morning now I’m out there raking those petals into a mound. I shift them by the armload over to the base of the tree, where hopefully their rot can be of use.




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Pip Robertson is a writer who lives in Wellington, New Zealand.