Sunlight peeks through a slit in the curtains. She rolls over, sighs, stretches.
So rested. Not for months - over four - has she slept more than 3 hours at a time.
She listens. Sweet silence. Dare she risk a shower?
The bliss of warm water cascading over the bulges and bumps where previously was sleek flesh. A moment of luxury, pure self-indulgence. Remembering how it felt, not to be so exhausted.
Breasts bulging, she slips on her dressing gown. Tiptoes to the bedroom doorway.
The scent of powder and milkiness and soap and skin tantilises her nostrils. A surge of longing.
Silence. Too much silence.
Horror shoots up her spine. She leaps across the room, throws herself at the cot and grabs up the form.
Limp. Lifeless. Cold.
Breasts pouring milky tears. Dry retching fear. Breath stolen from her lungs.
“My baby!” she screams to an empty house.
‘So why did your daughter run away, do you think, Mrs Johnson?’ The officer’s voice was soft, but the uniform and the stark surroundings made the question harsh and accusing.She stared out past the concrete walls, the bare desk and empty chair, through the tiny window, into the middle distance, as if the clouded sky could provide an answer where she could not.
Why did anyone do anything? Why would a child run away from a warm, loving home, to live on the streets with the waifs and strays? She didn’t even know this child any more. How could she know what she was thinking?
‘I really don’t know,’ she murmured.
“How about the pills? Where might she have got those from?’
A sickening feeling lurched in her stomach. Her child - her baby- using drugs. She knew it was commonplace amongst teenagers these days, but that didn’t make it all right for her child. The fears of her own teenagehood and the warnings instilled in her about pot and dreaded heroin came flooding back. It had all seemed so distant, so American, to ‘use’, that the warnings just seemed superfluous, back then. But the whole new world of party drugs, of pill-popping, was so much more accessible, so much more acceptable today, no wonder her daughter just had to try it for herself. That’s what teens did, after all, experiment. But not her child. Not ever. Until now.
‘I really don’t know,’ she repeated.
Her mind remained as clouded as the sky, as she tried to focus on the issue before her. She thought of the baby in her arms, the toddler running around in just a T shirt and nappy, the child with bouncing curls and a curiosity about the world. She had always felt like she had a strong, loving relationship with her gorgeous child. Come the teenage years she had struggled with the usual problems, see-sawing on the parenting scale between being too demanding, too disciplined, too harsh, and then the next day too lenient, too forgiving, too helpful when the child needed rescuing. It was all such a struggle, such a learning curve. Children came with no instruction manual, and even if they did, it would need to be constantly updated as the child grew and changed. She had hoped that she could, in the end, just rely on the relationship, the unconditional love, to see them through all the hassles- the untidiness; the rudeness; the manner of dress – or undress, as it might be; the disagreement about choice of friends; the lack of focus on schoolwork; the reliance on technology for communication with friends…. The list went on. But this, this was something beyond imagination, this was scary. This was real life, at the wrong end of the scale.
The coldness of the building was not offset by the heat blasting from the heatpump. She followed the officer down the corridor to a further desk, this one loaded with paper in front of a harassed looking policewoman.
‘Officer Roberts will help you fill out the paperwork before you take your daughter home. You’ll get the court notice in the mail some time in the next week.’
A lump in her stomach sat like cold porridge at the sound of the unfamiliar terms. She skimmed the papers put in front of her and signed where she was told to. She wrapped her coat tighter around herself, and followed the officer to a lobby to wait until her daughter was brought to her.
The vignette from her imagination of her child running to her, throwing herself in her arms and sobbing ‘Mum, mum, I’m so sorry’ was quickly replaced by the reality of a surly teen, barely looking up through her mascara-smeared panda eyes, who sulkily followed her out the swing doors into the evening air.
They drove the fifteen minutes home in silence. What was there to say, to ask, that could help make sense of this predicament?
As they came to the last stretch of road before reaching the place they called home, the girl finally looked up.
‘Thanks for picking me up, Mum,’ she said, barely audibly.Taking one hand from the steering wheel, she reached over and touched her daughter’s arm gently, but warmly.
Their eyes locked for hardly a second, just enough to make her heart skip a beat. She caught her breath before returning her stare to the road, into the middle distance beyond. Was that, there in the grey clouded sky, way out to the right, just the tiniest speck of blue daring to show itself, on the horizon?
He had been waiting for this moment all his life.And now that it was here, it caught him by surprise, really.
He had been expecting it for years. Well, for always. Who could ever presume they had a tomorrow?But he hadn’t expected it today. There was nothing to mark this day as momentous.
As the pains came and went in waves, bands of tightness across his chest, he gasped for air, knowing that this was, indeed, the day.He reached for his chest, as if holding his heart would encourage it to go on just a little longer.
He had just sat down at the kitchen table with his morning coffee, feeling slightly dizzy and nauseous after his usual short walk to collect the post from the mail box. Daphne was in town, she would be away for hours. So it was just him, his coffee, the morning paper, his blossoming spring garden through the plated glass, and the coronary.
Spring. How ironic. Spring was meant to be a time of growth, of renewal. But not for him.
It was true. Your life did flash past your eyes. But his was more like a slow 8mm movie, with flickers and scratches, grey and disjointed, just like those old movies he took in the 70s when the kids were little and home movie cameras were new. He saw the boys, in their little checked rompers, splashing in the paddling pool. He saw Valerie, coy and pretty, like first loves should be. How she had stolen his heart! They had married way too young, people said it wouldn’t last, but the cancer took her long before complacency and divorce could.
He looked around. Perhaps if he could just reach his coffee. He would have preferred water, but the kitchen sink was a marathon away. His shaking hand knocked the cup, the coffee spilt to make a footbath in the saucer. He had always hated that, growled at Daphne whenever she delivered his coffee already slopping around the ankles of the cup. How petty those irritants seemed now.
Perhaps she would get sick of shopping and come home early? Perhaps he could reach the phone on the sideboard? He chuckled inwardly. She would never have remembered her mobile, much less have it fully charged and switched on.
Daphne. Sweet, obliging, grey-haired, Daphne. They had been good for each other in these later years. Company. Caring. She had that wicked sense of humour which kept him on his toes. Pushed him out to join the bridge club, take up bowls, attend the rose competitions - do things no self-respecting farmer would have done without a woman to cajole him into it. She would be devastated to find him here, slouched in his chair, at the kitchen table.
His breath came short and sharp now, matching the pains which spread from his heart, throughout his body. The heart- that symbol of love. Ironic, again, that it should be the thing to kill him. He’d spent all his life working for love. The years on the farm, the miles of fences he had built; the hours he had spent walking up and down the pit in the milking shed, putting on and taking cups off cows; the hay he had cut, raked, baled, stacked in the barn and fed out to the stock; the ragwort he had pulled; the drenching... It was all for the people he had loved. The portraits drifted through his memory as his consciousness faded in and out. His boys, his wives, his family, his mates- yes, even his mates. That had been love, although no kiwi bloke would ever use that word out loud.
He felt poised on a precipice. The pain kept him still very much in this life, but he teetered on the brink of whatever came next. Is this how a caterpillar felt as it wove its cocoon? Did it have any consciousness of the process, if not the destination?
Thoughts of his sons flashed through his consciousness. They had both done well, but neither of them had followed him onto the farm. Perhaps he had been too hard on them, expected too much, wanted them to be who they were not? How would they take the news? Gary, in Sydney, a partner in some fancy accountant’s firm. Having to take a few days off for Dad’s funeral. Bit of a nuisance. Slight regret he hadn’t stayed a few days longer last Christmas. Phil, in Auckland, living the vibrant gay lifestyle. How had that happened to a good kiwi farm boy? It didn’t matter now, anyway, he thought. They were good kids. Men. They were men now. Good men. He’d done a good job on them really. They were kind, hard working, good blokes. Valerie would be proud.
A new wave of pain shot through his chest, extending from his breastbone, up to his throat, a strangulating, suffocating pain. It pushed up through his neck, his jaw, his shoulder, crippling, shooting pain, nothing like the angina he had ignored for years.
Years. Seventy seven, he had had, nearly seventy eight. A fair old innings, although you always hope for at least 5 more. But it had to end sometime, somehow.
His moment had come.
And now that it was here, he wished he could go back and do each moment again, laugh more, worry less; play more, work less; love more, argue less. But it was too late for regrets.
In the end, it all came down to him. Just him, on his own.
He had lived.
He had had the gift of life.
He had done what he had done; he had not done, what he had not done.
With a final closing of his eyes, he let it be.
The wood was as dry and sallow as some of the books contained on its shelves.
“About time someone did this,” he said, the words in themselves an accusation against her. “This ought to fix it. Been in the shed awhile. Should still be good though. Don’t think this stuff goes off.”
As soon as the lid was removed, the smell of the linseed oil permeated the room. Almost immediately she choked back a dry retch. It was as if her olfactory cells had the reaction imprinted upon them.
It threw her back 13 years, to that first dreaded excitement of knowing she contained a life within. The bookshelf had been new, the unmistakeable linseed smell wafted through the house. Each morning as she rose to get breakfast, the smell hit her first, followed by a wave of nausea. Then came the fear, which sat cold and hard, somewhere deep in her belly, near the soft, warm tissue that was to become another person.
She remembers telling him of her suspicions, almost as a weapon in a heated conversation about their unlikely future together. The arguments had been thick and fast, and now they mixed with words of blame and anger. Neither had planned on a baby, and indeed, each had been secretly planning a different future. A simple test result would decide their future.
Although they both awaited it, the shrill, demanding telephone ring made them jump. He was the one who answered, nodded resolutely, and said ‘I see. Thank you,’ as he hung up the receiver.
“Well, I guess we love each other then.” was all he said.
Almost without question, their lives had merged after that.
And now, two further lifetimes later, the stench of the linseed oil still made her physically ill.
“No. I was wrong. It goes off alright.” Too late, he resealed the lid. But the smell had already escaped and like an ethereal genie, could not be put back.
Their gaze held longer than was necessary.
“I’ll be off then,” he said lightly, and he firmly shut the door behind him, still carrying the jar of oil.
You can spend three hours a day playing the piano, practising and practising until every last note is perfect, the rhythm and cadence faultless, the nuance and emotion effortless. And then you play the performance piece, and it is done. If you don’t keep up the practice, it won’t stay perfect. You are only ever as good as your last performance. It’s not like a painting you can put on the wall, and say ‘see, look how good I once was’, even if you never paint again.
Coffee is not like that. Coffee is like the piano. It doesn’t matter how many you have, if today’s is better or worse than yesterday’s. All that matters is the coffee you have right now.
It starts with the aroma, long before the first drop is drunk. Scent wafts in the air, luring the senses of even the non-believers who stick to their herbal teas, teasing the nostrils and seducing the saliva glands. Then there is the ritual of the making – the whirr and hum of the grinder, the hiss and splutter of the milk frother, the gurgle and chug of the coffee maker, combining to make a symphony of impending caffeine.
The product itself is a sight to make many a barista swell with a sense of proud satisfaction. Soft milky whiteness, with an artful scattering of cinnamon dust on the snowy surface, hides the true content of the black, inky bitterness lurking beneath.
The cup, too, an important part in the illusion- sturdy, but beautiful; graceful, but functional; bright, but practical. The mere movement of lifting it to one’s lips, the aroma coming at full force towards the unsuspecting nose, the flavour ready to attack the innocent taste buds, are worthy the drama of a full length feature film.
Then, finally; The Tasting. The foaminess of the milk, the smoothness of the blend, the gentle bitterness soothed by the hint of cinnamon, swirl around the mouth in a dizzying combination, rendering the brain defenceless as it is at once both drugged by the headiness of the brew, and then shocked, as if struck by a lightning bolt in the mouth. Alert now, the body admits defeat, as it succumbs to the giddying effects of a brew well made, well presented, and well imbibed.
The concerto is complete.
The audience rise to a standing ovation.
Today’s coffee was good.
I watch the clouds every day from my hilltop home, forming
shapes and patterns over the landscape. As individual as personalities, no two
clouds are ever the same. Some days they are painted streaks against the azure
blue sky, wisps of vapour
I can almost taste as a hint of lemon in an icy sorbet. Then there are days the
balls of cotton fluff dance along the sky, animal shapes which contort and
change as they race in the wind. Other days, they hang full and heavy, pregnant
with rain, threatening, menacing.
He should have known better than to take off that day.
And the sunsets. Oh, the sunsets. As the sun leans down in the western sky
beyond the mountain, the last gorgeous golden rays radiated each day are taken
by the clouds and enhanced. Silver linings shine out behind cumulus, fingers of
light stretch through between cirrus, every slightest hint of colour is
reflected and refracted to produce a rainbow of not just the usual orange and
red and gold, but tangerine and cerise and mauve and peach, yes, peach - into the indigo evening
‘Take offs are
optional, only landings are compulsory’, he often joked, not listening to his
Clouds. So innocuous. Almost nothing at all. Just vapour.
Untouchable, unobtainable. You can walk right through them. So harmless, so
innocent, so stunningly beautiful.
‘Metservice says it’s clearing,’ he justified to himself, as he packed his headset.
Swan feathers and tutus, light and airy in the blue sky, innocently hid the angry grey turbulence which brewed just beyond. As if a frustrated artist had wielded her paintbrush haphazardly, dabbing and streaking the sky with violence, the storm fermented far to the west, clandestinely challenging the blue sky.
‘It’s just a quick
trip to the coast. I’ll be back by 5. Saves hours of driving.’ He kissed me
goodbye, same as any morning.
In winter, the clouds cannot hold themselves up and fall silently to the ground. Some days it is porridge thick; other days, so light that a halo of sun glows through, silhouetting the trees in a hazy shroud. People grumble, complaining about the fog, cursing the coveting blanket that surrounds us. But it is these mornings I choose to go out, walking amongst the mist along the country roads, claiming the fog as my own in the same way the Scottish claim the ‘mist in the Glen’. I embrace it, as it embraces me.
He rang the airfield where he planned to land. ‘It’s clear. Just a little bit of drizzle,’ they said. His instincts should have told him to be wary. Drizzle does not fall out of blue sky.
I am fascinated how I cannot see further than a hundred metres around myself, but as I draw closer to something, it gradually becomes visible until it is part of my landscape. Meanwhile, behind me, what I have passed by is enshrouded in mist. A metaphor for life - the future stands before us, we know not what it holds until we get close enough to it, while behind us, our past is soon lost in the fading mists of memory.
He had been flying for
years. Flying was in his genes, in his blood.
He was a cautious man, a good pilot. Who knows what else was on his
mind, that influenced his decision making that day? And what, now, did it
I loved the way the clouds could change my perspective of
the mountain, daily. Once I took photos of it at the same time each day for a
month. Some days the mountain lay long and languid as a sleeping goddess on the
landscape, picture book fluffy clouds dotted around like in a child’s painting.
Other days the mountain had completely disappeared, covered in cloud as if a
blanket had been hung before it. If you did not know the area, you would never
believe there was a whole mountain range just there, just beyond the green
grass and kahikatea trees in the foreground. But my favourite scene was when the
clouds would intersperse themselves between the peaks and valleys of the
mountain, changing the two dimensional scene to a series of foothills and furrows,
closer crags and more distant ridges. Suddenly the mountain range became
visible in three indomitable dimensions, with the depth and perspective an
artist would have appreciated.
Who would choose the
job of a weather forecaster? How can they ever know what might blow in from the
coast, island country that we are. It changes so quickly. Most days it doesn’t
matter at all, if you get caught in an unexpected shower or happen to wear a
layer too many on a warmer than expected day. But some days, it can be life
This day, the sun peeked through the uncertain clouds, some high, some low, some racing through the sky on a fervent wind, while above lurked the greyer, more solid clouds, in no hurry to go anywhere. Knees damp on the grass, my mind drifts with them as I dig, turn, work the soil, planting bulbs. There is something elemental about the smell of freshly turned earth. Perhaps it is our soul responding to the reminder that therein lies the origin of our body - dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
The small aircraft had set out below the bank of high cloud, flying uneventfully across the plains. Tufts of light fairy-cloud kept him company as he watched the road twist and turn below. There is such a feeling of freedom, defying gravity and several other laws of physics, soaring above the intricacies of the everyday, bringing all his senses alive.
The lifelessly dry, flaky-skinned bulbs are placed in the
damp soil, hope buried for the spring, when the tulips and daffodils would fill
the air with their carefree scent, at the end of what would be a bleak, lonely
The flat land soon
gave way to foothills, before he entered the valley with walls of green native bush
on either side. Pockets of blue above the distant range hinted at promise and
possibility. As he flew further into the valley, the land rose up to meet him
from below and the hillsides grew closer. Gradually, the clouds drew in from
above, the range ahead became grey. The small plane circled lower and lower, searching
for a clear patch between the clouds.
The first rain fell fat and cold, not just droplets but
spoonfuls of water, in riverlets down my neck, sending me inside. Dirt still
clumped beneath my nails, I put the kettle on. Steam formed clouds of its own,
trickling down the glass as it hit the inside of the window, matching those on
the outside pane. Quietly, I sat
drinking tea, reading the paper, having a perfectly pleasant morning, oblivious
to what was just out of sight, just beyond the fog that was yet to clear.
There were no clear
patches, anymore. White, fluffy vapour had crept in from all sides, called to
the valley floor as the temperature had dropped. The plane circled frantically,
like a fly in a trap. Up or down were the only choices.
The water that fell freely, innocently, outside, had sent me
indoors to shelter. Yet once inside, I sought its sustenance. Water. One could
float on it or drown in it. An element, both vital and lethal, changing form
and potency at whim, it seemed.
‘Down’ were trees, rocks, rivers. ‘Up’ were clouds, storm, rain, and eventually blue sky. While the earth may be overcast, always, above the cloud, was sunshine and infinite blue sky. It was the best of a bad choice.
I lit the fire. It was not particularly cold, but a fire
helped dry out the air, clear the dampness that had surrounded the house as the
clouds closed in. The wood was solid and fragrant, a hint of the pine tree it once
was, still clinging to it. The match struck immediately. I watched the flames
lick and flicker at the paper and tinder dry pinecones. Fire- beautiful,
innocent, innocuous - when contained. Deadly, if let loose. Vital, yet lethal. I
shut the door to the fire box firmly.
‘Up’ were also the
valley walls. Trees, rocks, streams tumbling into cascading waterfalls to the
valley floor far below. Visual Flight
Rulebook and all training cast aside, ‘up’ he went, the embracing, encompassing
clouds forbidding him from seeing the future, until it was upon him. And in
that instant, there was nothing he could do to change it.
Five o’clock came and went. ‘No news is good news,’ I told myself, trying not to watch the clock. And I would be proven right. There would be no news that was good news, that night.
There was no body to recover.
The plane had burst into flames, a scorch mark on the hillside his
epitaph. He had always said he wanted to
be cremated. His body turned to vapour, his DNA intermingling with the
beautiful, turbulent clouds that blew from the west, bringing rain inland.
The young officer had clearly not had experience at this
before. This was a small town, it didn’t happen very often. It was certainly
the first time in his short career. I almost felt sorry for him, wanted to
comfort him in his awkward task. I
already knew, of course. There could be no other possibilities. I had sensed him
in the rain clouds as I breathed in their density.
There would be just a
small article in tomorrow’s paper. Two lines, under the headline ‘Light Plane Crash’. His name, in black ink on white
People drew in, like clouds, around me, encircling me, enshrouding me, their sympathy a stifling blanket which threatened to suffocate me. The vaporous clouds had turned to liquid and I was drowning in a sea of grief, only some of it mine. Why do people bring food, food and more food, when sadness fills the stomach with its dull ache, allowing nothing else to enter?
I escape from the silent din made by these friendly
strangers in my house and walk out, into the cool refreshing mist that the
evening has brought. The worst of the storm has blown over, and the stars begin
to dare show their faces and between the drifting clouds.
Light. If it were not for the darkness, we would never see
the stars, even though they are always there. Deep within, I know this night
will pass, the morning will shine again tomorrow. There will be clouds, there
will be rain, there will be fire and water and light, but for now, I let the
last of the storm clouds that took him, wrap themselves around me, as his arms
would have that night, and I sink into their embrace for
one last time.
Onsen* on a snowy night
(* Japanese style natural hotpool)
Sliding the door to one side, the bathhouse curtain flutters around my head as I enter the steamy room. At first I go the wrong way, then follow the lead as I see half-naked women along the opposite wall, their clothes and towels piled in baskets arranged cubby holes. Shoes stand silently at attention on the wooden slatted walkway in the changing area. The women smile and nod in welcome, giggling behind their hands, at the sight of a foreign woman joining them in their daily ritual.
One woman, on her knees at the pool edge, washes her hair profusely. Another merrily soaps herself in public, despite her mutilated right breast. The mood is casual, friendly, cordial. The women come daily, catching up on gossip and news as they wash their bodies and wash away their day. They know each others’ families, their homes, their jobs, their worries, their stories. Problems are aired as are their bodies, the walls protecting their confidences as well as their privacy.
Climbing into the scalding water to soak, I find it hard to equate the modest, shy people I see each day on the street, in the shops, at the convenience store, with these women here, happily washing together. The sulphur smell is almost intoxicating as I watch the water trickling in through a bamboo pipe. I let my arms and legs float, weightless, not daring to move, for every movement creates a burning sensation on my skin, as it turns to bright pig-pink. The women beside me giggle, reciting ‘atsui, atsui, atsui’ under their breath, as if admitting how hot it is will somehow make it more bearable. I feel relieved that they too feel the heat, and that it is not just my white gaijin body that is not used to the searing water. I breathe deeply, lying back, my head supported by the cold stone edge of the pool. “Ichi-go, ichi-e” I think. This moment called ‘now’ will not return, and so I treasure it.
Dried and reclad, encased in a down jacket, I trudge home back through the falling snow to our Japanese Inn, each snowflake living its moment as it falls to the ground. In that falling, it is doing its living, whether anyone is there to see it or not. Toes pulsating with warmth, I melt the snow with my leather-clad footsteps, which are promptly re-covered in soft petals of snow.
Somehow, deep in my warmed-up bones, I know I will be back.
Somehow, deep in my warmed-up bones, I know I will be back.