Sport 41: 2013
Vincent O’Sullivan — The Families
Dad said, as he always did, that of course he would drive through to pick her up, and she, as he quite expected her to do, said no she wouldn’t hear of it, it was so much easier for her to pick up a rental. She told him she would drive through in no time. It was his being there when she crossed the bridge and drove into Knighton Road that made her know she was really home.
Kirsten guessed the hardest time would be the first weekend back, her father looking at her with that quiet, assessing sympathy that he was rather too aware of, and her mother’s blunter questioning. Dad was good to have a cry with, if that was what you needed, but with mum it was frankness after the first ten minutes. Life’s not just a nice red apple, as she used to tell Kirsten and her sister when they were children, waiting for you to come along and do it the favour of biting into it. That was the way it had always been, Dad for sympathy, Mary, as mum was always called from the time the girls were in their teens, the one with suggestions about what to do.
She was struck, as she always was after flying in from Melbourne, by that sense of the mildness of what she came back to. It was not only the weather, which was so much less pressing than the summers she still found a trial. It was the mildness of the people too that came back to her, the quieter voices, the hesitancy, the sense with her family perhaps especially, that there was the slightest distance between them. Intimacy was something you worked at, that could never be assumed. ‘You mean good manners?’ Gail had once said to her, when she tried to speak of it. She thought of it now as she waited in the queue to have her passport checked. The woman looked at her and down at her photograph and then up at her once more. Sammy had told her how much you could read into that moment as you passed through Immigration. The woman handed her passport back and hoped she would have a nice stay back home. For a moment Kirsten had in mind page 134 her senior class before she left on the Friday afternoon, wishing her the same thing. Clever, good-natured girls, and all of them shocked, amusingly enough, when they first read together the final section of Gulliver’s Travels, appalled at Swift’s being so destructive about mere reason.
She liked the drive into the green casual country. There was that same expectant lift she had known since she was a child, when they were driving back from Auckland and you first saw the long glint of the river, the far spread of the Waikato, the high distant smokestacks at Huntly. Dad would tell them about places as they passed, point to where the battle had taken place at Rangariri, the sacred hill at Taupiriri where the chiefs’ bodies were carried up the slopes, and the piece of riverbank they waited for, where heads had been raised up on poles, waiting to say in chorus, ‘Yuk!’ There were stretches when the river disappeared behind stands of trees, or the elevation of the land, and it seemed rather dull country you were driving through. Then there it was again, the river, sometimes close enough to imagine throwing a stone at, and at one place she waited to come to, where there was a little island in the middle of the river, and the current divided then met again. The river changed colour with the sky. It was brown and wide further back and under cloud, and now, as she came towards the city where she had grown up, it narrowed, bluish-grey like an old blade. She wished she could look at things without that intrusive ‘like’. Look at them plainly as they were. She advised her classes to watch out for that. The metaphor trap, she called it. There was nothing wrong with describing something as it was.
Riley hurled himself at her even before she stepped from the car. He pawed at her door and when her father called him back and gripped his collar his tail whacked against Dad’s leg, almost making him lose balance.
‘One fan you’ll always have,’ Dad told her.
‘He does the same with anyone,’ Mary said. ‘He knocked your aunt over a week ago.’
‘I know, I know,’ Kirsten said, pushing against Riley’s enthusiasm, her lips tingling as his tongue came close and she tilted back her head to avoid his slobber.page 135
Then, ‘You’ve lost weight,’ Dad said as he embraced her. Kirsten let herself sink against him, his warm hands spread across her back. The feeling of being home.
Mary too hugged her. Kirsten felt the lightly pressed lips against her cheek. ‘You could do with losing a bit, mind,’ her mother said. Yes, she knew she was home.
Dad picked up on what passed through her mind. ‘What it is to be appreciated.’ She knew he was glad the dog still bounded around them, excited at her return. It allowed him to say what he may not otherwise have said, laughing, telling her, ‘The house will be jumping at you next, Kirsty. Everybody’s darling.’ He pressed her arm and took her suitcase from the boot. Her mother stood back and smiled. Their daughter raised her hands to the side of Riley’s head, ruffling his ears, feeling the little knuckles of gristle where they folded against his head. ‘And Mum,’ she said, ‘you’ve dyed your hair!’
She was home without really wanting to be, which she knew they understood. Riley was doing them all a good turn, carrying on like a fool, telling them what fun it was, having her back home.
Dad said, ‘I think he’s got the hang of things.’
Kirsten linked her arm through his as they walked the dozen yards to the back patio. Last year it had newly been added on and its timbers raw. Now it gleamed golden-white. She pretended to shade her eyes against the glare of it. ‘My!’
‘All things bright and beautiful,’ Dad said.
Dad liked to walk. When he still taught at Boys’ High and if the weather was right for it, he would leave half an hour earlier than if he drove, and walk along Grey Street and over the bridge at the other end of town, and walk back in the late afternoon. These days he would sometimes ask at ten in the morning if there was anything needed at the shops? He would saunter up to Hamilton East in any case, walk twice around Steele Park, with its trees marvellous at any time of year. It took heavy rain to break his routine. He would walk again in the evenings. Mary said, ‘I’d come too if it wasn’t for all this,’ which they both smiled at. There was always something she was working at, the accounts she did for the café in the Gardens, the Drama Club, the schedules for bridge. ‘The only time I have to think about anything,’ Dad liked to say about his walks. ‘I can’t do that just sitting in a chair.’ page 136 Kirsten wondered if that was true. Think about what? She knew it sometimes irritated Mary, with her Zonta and her volunteering and what Dad a bit sharply called her ‘missionary work’, the hours spent with the Somalis in Claudelands, finding them furniture, helping the older ones whose English scarcely existed. ‘Walking and reading,’ Dad said, ‘your mother seems to think they’re not quite what an intelligent adult should do.’ But that was the way things were, from the time Kirsten and Gail were children. Mary got things done, Dad watched from the sidelines. All’s right with the world.
‘So?’ Dad said the next morning when Kirsten insisted yes, she really did feel like a walk herself. The sky was overcast but the wind was warm. She supposed he would wait for her to talk. They had been considerate last night, her father and Mary, neither for a moment pressing her to explain. She had telephoned a week ago to say there would not be a wedding after all, that the plans for November had been scrapped. All she had told them over the roast lamb that Mary knew was her favourite was that it had not thank goodness ended in any kind of row with Sammy; they had come to see it at pretty much the same time, seen that it was simply too hard. They left her to say what she wanted, in her own time. How reasonable they had been too, earlier on, though she had guessed they were disappointed that she decided to marry over there and not at home, with the kind of wedding they had given Gail. Far more sensible, Mary agreed, to marry where Sammy’s family was finding its feet. Yet how odd it was too, that feeling Kirsten knew from when she was in her teens, the feeling that her mother understood her, that Dad did too, yet as one, and as the other, rather than both of them together. She was unsure quite what it was she meant. She could not have explained it, had she needed to make it clear to someone else. Even to Gail. But she knew there was something more than mildness behind Dad’s careful calm. She had read a sentence once that had struck her as saying what she herself could not have said. ‘Happiness is a matter of a well-conducted truce.’ When she found it in a notebook ages after she copied it, she was embarrassed at its triteness. In a book with scraps of Leonard Cohen and Borges, when the South American was all the rage.
At the end of the meal Mary had asked, ‘But you’ll stay on over there?’ And before she answered, her father surprising her. ‘As if she page 137 wouldn’t,’ he said. Pouring the last of the Te Kauwhata chardonnay into her glass. As if it was important that he said it before she did.
‘I feel such a fool,’ she told them. She left it there. Whatever more she meant by it she would tell them in her own good time. They both knew that. She loved them for it, their giving her time.
Her father had liked Sammy when they came across last Christmas. They talked together easily. ‘We science teachers,’ as Dad liked to say. And Mary carefully practised tact as though it were her way of life. Kirsten had not yet met his family. That, as Sammy said, was the treat in store for her when they went back. They used distance as their excuse, which was easy enough to do. A four-hour drive, there and back. ‘But we’ll have to sometime.’ Have to visit his family, which he told her she might ‘find a bit tricky’. She guessed he meant it came down to the language problem. If you heard Sammy across a room, you would assume he was Australian. But his mother, even now, was unable to shop unless one of his sisters accompanied her. Both the girls were older than Sammy. One sister was married, the other, the one hurt as a child, lived at home. Sammy sometimes joked about them. ‘These women who believe they own me.’ Yet she knew he spoke with them at least twice a week. There were times when she was at his flat and he would smile and hold his finger to his lips when his mother rang, sometimes at ten or eleven at night. Kirsten would guess he spoke placatingly, assuringly, to her, but knew of course that she was guessing. But there was no mistaking his patience, his respect. He seldom told her what they had spoken of. ‘We’ll have to go up there one day.’ ‘Up there’ was practically South Australia.
Gail, who was closer to Mary in temperament than she ever guessed, sometimes asked during the long calls they made every few weeks, ‘So it’s still OK then, is it?’—as if sooner or later there would come a day when Kirsten would say, ‘No, Gail, it’s not.’ Her younger sister had married at twenty, and now at twenty-six, two children later, had moved into a dream house on the Raglan Road. The elder child would start school next term and could already read. Although Gail never skited. She just delivered facts, which almost always were ones to be proud of. The less facts were sometimes to do with their parents. ‘I’d shoot myself, honest I would. If Des and I ever got to that. page 138 They can go a week and hardly say a word.’
‘They don’t fight,’ Kirsten said. ‘We’ve never heard them fight.’ She was unsure why she felt she needed to defend them. And Gail said, the shrewdness of it surprising her older sister, ‘Who said you have to fight not to get on?’
Gail was a quiet child and attractive, but her big sister was the clever one. She was the one her parents told friends about first, when asked, ‘How’s the family?’ Yes, finished her degree. Yes, a good school in London, they love her there. No shortage of boyfriends from what we hear. Yet next thing she was thirty. Mary mentioned Gail rather more often. No, Kirsten’s Italian engagement didn’t quite work out. Yes, Melbourne now. Had her fill of Europe, Mary said, it was nice being closer to home again of course. And no great surprise then if another engagement now didn’t go to plan. The cultural divide can be a big one. She’d know more once Kirsten came back for a break. ‘She’ll tell us in her own time,’ as she said to Gail. If being civilised meant anything it meant that. You didn’t lean on people. You gave them space.
It was nice, in its uneventful way, to walk along the old streets, to speak with the neighbours she had known for years. If there was a world contest for suburbia this would have to be a finalist. The neat sections, the modest, decent houses, the cars in the drives. When she was a teenager Kirsten had thought, if God meant you quietly to smother in the blandest way, he would put you in a place like Hillcrest. A week back now and she knew she would find it as stifling again. But walking those streets with Dad at this moment, the sparkle on the early morning verges, the trees vivid and dead still—how nice it was, how nice to remember even what it used to be like! She could have managed to walk here blindfolded.
‘You’re lucky, Dad,’ she said, ‘to know what you want.’
She knew her father would be waiting for her to confide. She must tell him a shortened version at least. Calling off a marriage is serious business. The clock keeps ticking, we all know that. She could hear the whirr of the old clichés. But not now.
Her father broke the easy silence between them. ‘So you don’t hate it too much? Spending time back here?’page 139
‘Dad,’ she said. She leaned towards him, touching the shoulder of his jacket with her forehead. ‘I wasn’t that bad was I?’
‘Standards vary,’ he joked at her. She could never feel this naturalness with Mary as she could with Dad. There was simply nothing that came between them. Each took the other for the private person they were. That was the ground they stood on. It had saddened her last night, sitting in the lounge after dinner, sipping the Dubonnet she knew her parents had bought especially, their remembering her telling them years before it was her favourite drink while she was away. Saddened her at how he had aged, even in a year. That fraction slower, that thinning of his hair, which those who were close to him each day would not have noticed. She had crossed the road in front of the Catholic cathedral, walking down towards the bridge, towards the long gardens along the river’s banks. She went over what she would tell him, how she would account for calling the wedding off, without ceasing to love the man she intended marrying.
Dad would be on her side. He would try to understand. He would agree with her in any case, even if he did not.
Sammy’s mother stepped back as Kirsten made the mistake of leaning towards her.
‘I should have told you,’ he explained to her later. ‘We don’t kiss first off the way you people do.’ Yet not quite saying it as lightly as she might have thought.
The lunch had been a disaster. His sister who was married to a timid Australian at least had called her by her name. And, ‘This is Rob,’ she had said, without turning to her husband. He was a lot older than his wife. Sammy had said on the drive through that his brother-in-law ran a small electrical appliance store, and Rose had worked for him. He believed the community should do what they could to welcome new Australians, and a year after she began there, Rose and he had married.
‘But your mother didn’t mind that?’
‘She was a girl marrying a man with a nice house and a shop in the main street. There was nothing too much to mind.’
Kirsten tried not to make too much of it. She laughed, touching Sammy’s knee. ‘If I put in a pool and bought you your own car do you page 140 think that would help?’
‘And make me lose face?’ He put his hand on hers, leaving it there for several minutes as they covered the long flat road towards ‘the Family’, as she thought of it, the word drained of any warmth it might be expected to hold.
‘Rob isn’t a drinker and he doesn’t expect Rose to cook steak and chips. How can we compete with that?’ She smiled to show she was up to whatever the Family might throw at her, but was apprehensive. Sammy was part of the Family too, as deeply a part of it as his sisters, and far more important than them, of course. He was what his mother was proud of, he was what they had achieved. The girls were minor players.
On the way back home on the Highway, ten minutes after they had left the house, Kirsten said quietly, ‘You didn’t warn me I’d be treated like shit.’ Her cheeks burned. After that first gaffe with the attempted kiss, Sammy’s mother ignored her for the longest two hours of her life. Kirsten was seated at the end of the table, Rose to one side of her, Rob on the other. Both spoke to her, but sparingly, as though Rob’s now being one of the Family obliged him to behave in the same way. All attention was turned to Sammy, who was next to his mother and elder sister at the further end of the carved heavy table, with its red embroidered runner and elaborate arrangement of dishes. A big jug of lemon tea was poured by Li, who was pretty, but walked with one foot shuffling from her injury. Rose occasionally looked towards their guest, and asked if she liked the food. Her mother placed dishes in front of the others, but left it to her son-in-law to attend to the woman her son had brought with him.
Kirsten looked at the large vases of artificial flowers on their low black tables, at the figurines on the mantelpiece that may have been religious. A jar with blackened joss-sticks stood between them. A large hand-coloured photograph of a middle-aged man hung on the wall above them, with two miniature crossed flags beneath it. Sammy seemed not to take in how wretched she was. Towards the end of the meal Rob broke ranks and began to ask her about Melbourne, and when she said she lived a stone’s throw from Central, he said he supposed there would be no point having a vehicle that close to the centre, even supposing you had a place to park it? No, she said, there page 141 wouldn’t be much point. He seemed not to mind when she said she hadn’t given it much thought.
Rose too began to speak. ‘An Audi, that’s what we have,’ she said. ‘An Audi, Rob?’—as though he may not have heard.
‘I like a European car,’ he said.
Sammy’s mother looked down the table and said to her son, who translated and passed on to Rob, that his mother-in-law thought that in a flat city like Melbourne, it was ridiculous how few bicycles there were, or even mopeds, how every Australian seemed to want a car first and then only after that a wife.
Kirsten had forced herself to smile, guessing the mother may have made a joke. But Sammy had translated what his mother said seemingly dead straight, and Rob too appeared to take her opinion as worth attending to. And he said quietly across to his wife, that the fish was OK, but you could tell it had been frozen longer than was good for it. They’d have to give that new place a try, did she think?
Rose agreed. She said, to no one specifically, that was the trouble living inland. You could never be certain, whatever the shop people said.
It was inevitable there would be a row on the long drive back.
‘Not a word,’ Kirsten said, ‘you must have noticed that? Not one word the whole time we were there.’
Sammy tried to tell her, ‘Nothing else much matters when she’s cooking. She’s the generation where cooking is everything. Getting a meal ready for people. She went to a lot of trouble.’
‘Ready for people? Well I wasn’t one of them, I can tell you that. If she and your sisters had their way they’d have starved me to death!’ She felt the stinging shame of not being able to keep her anger to herself. She knew Sammy must have hated it as much as she did. He said, ‘We had to get it over. Now we have.’ And as if grasping for some small thing that did not offend her, ‘Rose was nice to you wasn’t she? Rose was nice?’
Thinking of it now, knowing somehow she must explain to Dad, Kirsten blinked back tears. The humiliation of it all. The message there in every moment she had been in their home, You are not what we have in mind. As they left, Sammy had leaned forward and his mother and his sisters kissed his cheeks, ran their hands along his sleeves, page 142 gave him round bamboo boxes which were treats they had made for him to take home. Rose had relented enough to say, when the others were still fussing about him, that Sammy looked so like their father, that was why their mother cried, why they all spoiled him. But Rob she noticed did not say anything to encourage her, to make her think time would improve anything. And yet she said ‘Thank you’ to him through the lowered window as they left. His mother and the girls were on the driver’s side, still grasping at his hands as he drove off.
‘But I told you,’ he said, ‘I told you it would be like that. It isn’t you. They would be jealous of anybody. Now we can forget about it.’ Because he had expected it and it was even rather amusing to him, he thought it might be so for her as well, something surely they could see in perspective? It would prove how close they actually were, how they saw things in the same way because, in that stupid phrase he had picked up somewhere, they were soulmates. Well, weren’t they? ‘We are soul mates, Kirsten.’
‘I was shocked at myself, Dad,’ Kirsten now told him. ‘That was about the worst part. That it mattered so much me.’
They were walking down to the dark broad tug of the river. It ran close in against the banks. ‘It’s high, isn’t it?’ she said. When she was little she had always been apprehensive when they walked this path that the level of the river would suddenly rise and lap around them and push them downstream with the driftwood and scraps of pumice you saw floating past, so much faster than you’d ever expect. An older cousin knew how much the river frightened her. ‘It’s coming up, it’s coming up,’ she would say, very close against her so that only she and not their parents might hear.
Now she had started, she went on. ‘I never thought I was like that you know and here I was hating them. Really hating them.’
‘You’d have felt the same if they’d been Kiwis,’ her father said. ‘It’s not what they look like. It’s what they did.’
They each knew there was not that much more to say, but it was good even to talk like this, as she never would with Mary. It had always been like this. When she was a teenager, when girls were supposed to be close to their mothers, it was Dad she found herself talking to, telling her about her boyfriend even, about Ron Dowse from Tirau who had said if she didn’t let him do more, let him undo page 143 her blouse anyway on the long summer evenings when they and some friends drove up the sanatorium road to Maungakawa and watched the bands of gold and shadow across the river country, well, he had said, that was that. Not that she told Dad exactly, about having to deal with Ron’s hands as if they were huge insects that she constantly slapped at. She supposed now Dad must have guessed anyway. He had told her, ‘Remember you’re always in charge, Kirsty. Your friends can’t make you do anything. You’re always in charge.’
Sammy just couldn’t understand, she said. It came down to his expecting what happened. ‘And so he thought I would too. He knew they wouldn’t like me. Wouldn’t like anyone who wasn’t one of their own. Ever. He had taken it for granted I somehow wouldn’t mind. That I’d pretend it was OK because he believed himself that it shouldn’t matter.’ Dad touched her arm but thank goodness didn’t come out with what she had heard enough of already from friends in Melbourne—that people change over time, that getting on with in-laws wasn’t everything.
They walked slowly along the path to the low hulk of the old gun-boat. She knew Dad’s silence told her he agreed. You know in your bones what you think is right. Although he did say, ‘When that first lustre wears off, that’s when you see problems for what they are. It’s a lot harder then to put things right.’ Once we get used to each other, she had gone over that so often too. For the week after the visit to his family he came round to her flat and they made love and he told her what she meant to him. But even then, with the comfort of his breathing beside her when he slept, his back warm against her arm, she thought of that, and feared it. When we are used to each other, I am the one he will think differently about, not them. She knew how bad it must have been for them in the war, how, once his father died, his mother had starved and lied and even killed, Sammy had hinted at that even, to get them through, to bring them here. He will not become unkind, Sammy would never be that, but what he grew up with cannot go away. There will be a veil between us, and then at last perhaps a wall.
They walked up the grassy slope and sat on a bench beneath a tree whose name Kirsten did not know. Mary would have, mind. Mary could have walked to the coast and told you about everything they page 144 passed. But how good it was to sit here. The peacefulness of it. The last few weeks had been so wretched. Sammy had said, over and over, ‘Perhaps we just need time. If we love each other we’ll get through.’ She watched a sculler skim across the taut dark water. On the other bank a group of rowers were carrying their boat down to the river. Kirsten said again, ‘I’m sure the river’s higher than I remembered it last year,’ and Dad said there’d been so much rain, weeks of it in fact. Then he said, ‘You mustn’t regret what was good about it though. That always stays as it was.’
She could have hugged him for saying that! She put her hand on his and he took her fingers and pressed them, before they stood and walked back up to River Road. He said, ‘I think your mother wants to drive you out to Cambridge after lunch. To have you to herself.’
Which meant, Kirsten supposed, her wanting to say something without her father there to hear.
On the way they drove past the house near Hautapu, where they had lived when Dad was at the country school.
‘We must have been so packed in!’
‘We were,’ Mary said, ‘but we seemed not to know at the time.’
It was the first home Kirsten remembered, before the later years after the shift into town, years when Mary did the accounts at the dairy factory, and the arguments when Dad said he was contented where he was. It angered her mother, his having no desire in the world to apply for something more. He was an excellent teacher, wasn’t he, a school of his own would have been his for the asking? ‘But I like what I do.’ It must have been said so much the sentence stayed in her mind, as did Mary’s silences. The house was a roughcast, white painted box, with blue sills and a door that made it look oddly like a Greek postcard.
‘It doesn’t look lived in,’ Kirsten said. The lawns were uncut, a trailer stood in high grass.
‘The school closed years back so there’s no need for a teacher’s house. The dairy factory too. That’s closed.’
‘And the big tree. It’s not there.’ The copper beech that flickered across the windows at the side of the house, its leaves looking as though it was an ordinary tree that had been scorched. She thought page 145 of the fat,round cheeses, so heavy you could hardly hold one, which Mr Prendergast the manager let their mother bring home. Kirsten did not remember ever seeing him, Mr Prendergast, but knew they were a present from him. The deep sides were curved and lovely to run the palms of your hand across, but if you pushed at the cheese before it was cut it made her think of trying to push against hard rubber. There were some nights too—not many, but how they stayed alive!—when she and Gail lay in bed and her parents argued in the kitchen. Dad had closed the door so what they said was not loud enough to hear. But you could tell just how angry they were. Gail had said it was like when a kettle begins to boil. But once when they thought she was outside and Dad was marking at the table he joked about and called his office, she heard Mary ask him, not sure of what her mother meant, what sort of man doesn’t want to get on? Surely he owed her that?
‘You wouldn’t remember much from when we lived out here? Before we went into town?’
‘Not much,’ Kirsten said. ‘I do remember how empty it all seemed though. The paddocks. How big they were. How few houses. And now.’ They were passing what they had always called the Tamahere turnoff. ‘They’re everywhere. New and ugly.’
‘Not all of them,’ Mary said.
‘I suppose not. Just big and ostentatious.’
‘So Marx isn’t dead,’ her mother teased her.
‘Not as dead as that,’ she smiled. How they had argued about all that during her last year at school! Not even argued, that was the problem. Her parents, who voted Labour anyway, had been amused at her vehemence, at her defending Trotsky as the lost leader. ‘Why not Joan of Arc?’ Mary provoked her: ‘She was one of us girls.’ There already was a photograph of Germaine Greer on her bedroom wall.
Just before coming into Cambridge, a stone’s throw from the watertower that once had seemed so exotic to her, like something you saw in books about foreign places, they passed a mock Tudor mansion where a cousin, the town’s plumber, lived in style. His wife grew orchids in a long glasshouse at the side of the house. There was talk of his standing for the local council on a Ratepayers’ ticket. ‘He’s that overweight,’ Mary said, ‘I doubt he’ll last till Christmas.’
Both women laughed at what occurred to them together, the page 146 thought of his bulk clambering beneath houses to attend to drains. ‘You never let up, do you?’ Kirsten told her mother.
‘Not with a prick like that, I don’t.’ It brought them together, her saying that. An easing of tension, Kirsten supposed that was it, their shared mockery of a relative they both disliked, her mother using a word that took her by surprise.
Then ‘Let’s live it up,’ Mary said, as they passed the war memorial and she turned to park facing the green expanse where over the years they had come to heaven knows how many occasions, candlelight carol services, athletic events, even cricket matches, when Gail had briefly played for a first-class team, and then gave up a month after she met Gavin, when she might have been chosen for the national squad. They walked back past the Town Hall, to the gable-roofed church that was now a coffee shop and painted lolly-pink.
‘On me,’ Mary said.
Kirsten felt she were at school again and being taken for a treat. They sat at a table made from recycled wood, with koru patterns roughly incised in the surface. There were equally rough paintings with pioneer motifs on large hardboard panels attached to the walls. When their lattes were brought to them, with fern-leaves patterned in the cream, Mary said, ‘If I ran a place like this I’d put something offensive on them. Swastikas, say. I can’t stand this way we have to play at being Kiwis all the time.’
I suppose this is it, then, Kirsten thought, she will want me to talk. Mary began head on. ‘You miss him, do you? Sammy?’
‘I hoped I’d be over the worst of it. But yes. All the time.’
Her mother tore at one of the narrow paper tubes of sugar stacked in a bowl in front of them and tilted it over her cup. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘It shows how deeply you’ve considered what you’ve decided to do.’
My God, Kirsten thought, what she wouldn’t give to live as neatly as Mary managed to. Life clipped into place. Roses trimmed at the same time every year. Essential things logically done. There was no condescension in her thinking this, nor envy either. She could not imagine herself being further from her mother, that was all. In temperament. In what she wanted from life. And then what in a week’s time would so come back to her, in the high tidy apartment in the renovated Drewery Place factory, with the noise from the nightclub page 147 across the narrow lane starting up at midnight, and lasting sometimes until four o’clock. Her mother now asking her, ‘You’ve talked with your father then?’
‘When we walked down to the river. There’s not much really to say, is there? And you know Dad. He’s not one to lecture. But he was kind and listened. It was good to get it over.’
‘No, I mean about us,’ Mary said. ‘He didn’t talk about us? He didn’t tell you that I’m leaving him?’ She folded in half the empty sugar packet she took up from beside her cup. Then she said, ‘No, I suppose it’s fair enough that I’m the one who should tell you.’
Kirsten began to cry. Her mother passed her a tissue that she took from her purse, then sat holding her daughter’s hand, running her index finger along the cuff of Kirsten’s shirt. ‘My dear,’ she said, ‘I know, I know.’
‘The worst thing,’ Kirsten said later in the day, when she walked to the end of the back garden and stood against the small glasshouse with its neat shelves of potted herbs, its staked tomato plants, the things she did not know the names for, and talked to her sister on her cellphone. ‘The worst thing was the moment I heard her say it, I knew it was right. It would never have occurred to me that they might break up. But as soon as she said so I was thinking, yes, they’re right to. I cried but it wasn’t for that, it was because they had left it until now. And for her too. That she was the one who had to see it.’
She felt her sister’s anger surging at her. ‘I think you’re talking shit,’ Gail shouted. ‘You’ve become so bloody selfish over there you can’t think of anyone else. Have you thought of Dad, have you?’ There was the interruption of one of the children hectoring its mother, a whining that made Kirsten impatient. But Gail was the one to say, ‘I’ll talk to you later.’ Although before she put the phone down she found her final shot. ‘I’d get myself sorted out marriage-wise if I were you, Kirsten. Before working it out for others.’
On the way back along the Cambridge Road Mary had said, very calmly, ‘I expect it was like that with you. You just know a point’s been reached. There’s nothing very dramatic about it. It’s not there in big lights. You just know.’
Kirsten did not say, as she might have, ‘No, Mum, it wasn’t like page 148 that with me at all. We were at the beginning. Sammy and I had hardly begun. You are at the end.’ She was glad she held back from saying it. They were passing the old farmhouse with an enormous Norfolk pine at the end of the drive. How many dozens of times they must have driven along here, from the time she first remembered, she and her sister strapped into the back seat, Dad sometimes singing and turning to call back to them, ‘Come on you two, you know this song don’t you? Right? Row, row, row your boat,’ and Mary telling him, ‘Watch the road, can’t you, John?’ But she would join in too, her voice thin and sweet, Kirsten liking it so much when they sang like that together, ‘gently down the stream.’ Their grandmother had lived in a house dark as a cupboard. She got their names mixed up or sometimes called them by names they had never heard, names of people in other places and some of them even dead. The house was a box of shadows, and smelled of medicine and dust. The curtains were drawn in the room they sat in while Dad was outside running a mower across the lawn. When he came inside he left his shoes on the steps, sprayed with grass that looked like clipped green paper.
Kirsten said as they passed another villa set behind a wide swathe of acacias, ‘They were horse trainers, weren’t they, the two men who lived in there?’
‘Something odd about that set-up too,’ Mary said. And their laughing at that, as Kirsten noticed the glazed streak on her mother’s cheek. ‘Oh, Mum,’ she said, touching her arm.
‘Those tissues are in the glovebox,’ Mary said. ‘I don’t know which of us needs them most.’
Kirsten switched on voicemail messages as soon as she set her bag down inside the bedroom door, and threw her jacket across a chair. It was late afternoon. The apartment in the converted printing works was cool enough for her to slip on a sweater, although when she stood at the large window of the lounge and looked up, the sky was bright above the walls of the lane. A friend from school had phoned to say ring back if she felt like meeting at the usual bar in Carlton. ‘Tuesdays are good,’ the message said. ‘We can hear ourselves talk.’ She knew it was a sympathy call, her friend thinking she would need cheering up now that she was back to an empty flat. There was another message from page 149 the telephone company, with details of a new deal that ran out at the end of the week, and a curt reminder from the caretaker that garbage collecting had moved to another day of the week. She then counted seven calls that left nothing but the click of a phone disconnecting. For those last few days before her trip home she had sat while the phone trilled, unwilling to have another conversation, not wanting to cover the same ground again. It was the hardest thing not to ring back. She sat now with her hands in her lap, looked through the squares of the big divided window at the brick wall of the nightclub across the lane. She had felt exhausted the minute she boarded the plane, and slept until they were crossing the coast. She looked at the stretch of land beneath her, the vastness of it, until it was lost in a bluish distant haze. Her mother had said to her the other afternoon, as they came up from the dip and into Hillcrest, ‘You’re the tough one, Kirsten, you’ll be all right. Your sister’s the one I worry about. I don’t know if Gavin’s all he should be.’ I’m not, Kirsten had wanted to cry out, no, I’m not! But with Mary there was a point where you drew the line. And later Dad had said only, ‘It can’t have come as such a surprise?’ And again she had not said what she had thought, ‘There was nothing in my life, Dad, that surprised me as much.’
Luckily, he said, money was not an issue, they certainly wouldn’t be arguing over that. Luckily there’s the bach at Raglan, in fact he quite liked the idea of living out there, years of reading, he said, to catch up on. There’d be no problem with Riley. There wouldn’t be the least problem with the dog.
‘Don’t keep saying “luckily”,’ she had said to him. And then they talked about teaching, how he knew he had been good at it but had not missed it for a day. That had surprised him. She told him about her own classes, how fortunate that most of them were French, she didn’t have the problems that drove some of her colleagues up the wall. It had been the same with Sammy and senior Maths, she said. They didn’t get the yobboes. They didn’t get the thugs. Luckily.
When the window darkened she turned on the lamp that stood on the small carved table Sammy had given her, the Tiffany panes brightening the room. She looked at her watch and saw it was eight o’clock. The phone began to ring. I won’t answer it, she said, I won’t answer it, as she stood and walked towards it.