Elizabeth and Mary sit on a pebbly beach, buttoned up to cheat the cold.
Would you like a cup of tea, Mary?
Oh yes, that would be very nice. I’d like a cup of tea. Are you are going to give me one Elizabeth?*******
Yes! Here ‘tis.
Mary cradles the seashell and tips it towards her mouth.
Oh that was lovely. Thank you!
Yes, please. Tell me, Elizabeth, what game are we going to play today?
Oh a funny game—yes?
And who’s going to play the game?
Eire wants to play.
All right. Hello Eire, how are you today?
Brrrr Brrrr wow wow woww
What’s that, Elizabeth?
Doesn’t wanna talk. He’s saddy.
You’re a lovely girl Elizabeth, but it’s time to go home now. Your granny will be wondering where are.
Eire doesn’t want to go home. He wants an ice cream!
The tall spinster in a long grey gabardine raincoat clucks on the end of the brown leather reins strapped around the child.
Come on then, let’s go and see the ice cream man.
The end of da pier, we go to da end of da pier…
And what’s at the end of the pier?
Choc ice…you know!
Ah… at last. From inside a sash window, a pair of green eyes fix on Mary’s smile that has a sweetness about it but is quite devoid of dentistry. She is a bit soft, Mary. I’m sure she missed the boat when it comes to men. I’m not sure even I could find her a match. And by the look of the child’s mouth she’s taken her to that greasy Italian ice cream seller.
The warmth of the esse cooker fills the kitchen on the cliff edge of a grey stone medieval town. All day drizzle is now backed heavy slanted lines.
Cup of tea Mary? Potato bread just made, on the griddle!
Ooh thank you Mrs —. Shockin weather!
Yes you can have one too Elizabeth. You only just made it you two! Now, Mary here’s your money.
I don’t like taking your money. I love the wee girl.
But you must. Go on there Mary. She needs to be walked; she’s too much for me, always darting around imagining God knows what.
She just loves the ice cream dipped in chocolate hail!
The water has stopped slanting against the double storeyed (three reception rooms) semi-detached; Mary pulls on her raincoat and sets off against the wind for the other side of town.
Pick pick pick. Elizabeth makes a hole at the corner of the ropey cotton net, hooked over the cot.
Pick pick. These nubbly round bits won’t undo. Pick on the other side. Fingers so small, but perhaps they’re easier than big ones.
The hole widens. A smile of triumph.
Up through and over, easy as peesie!
Now for the hard part— being quiet—creeping along the early dawn hallway, along, along, along to the warm centre of the house.
A light rectangle frames the kitchen door as she scoots noiselessly as dust, picking up sounds with Jumbo ears. The question must be answered: what goes on downstairs when she is not around?
Granny is in there, creaking around like a barrel full of tea and cake and potato bread, marmalade and stew and all. Her words sound low and growly.
Elizabeth’s stomach has a gripey feel as she grinds her teeth rhythmically just to feel a bit better. Sitting down against the wall a little way along the corridor she reaches for her favourite piece of hair twiddle on the side of her head and with an index finger, goes round and round the two hundred or so fair hairs until a strand catches.
That’s the whole purpose of twiddling. You have to catch a couple of strands. It’s like fishing. Then when the wayward or unlucky strand has been “caught” it gets twisted round and round until it clicks and then you have the option of breaking it or making clicky noises, depending on how you’re feeling.
Elizabeth is a twiddler, others wouldn’t understand the satisfaction, the comfort it brings. Once a strand is “caught” the strand, one can click with your thumbnail; make noises that get on people’s nerves.
Don’t do that!.
Sometimes Elizabeth really upsets her by saying all right I’ll stop now and pulling down sharply on the twiddle, breaking two or three strands in a dramatic gesture.
Oh you’ll break all your hair that way! Don’t do that.
Perhaps it’s time to stop twiddling and think about what to do or, think and twiddle at the same time? Time to go back to the cot? No, too mussed up now. Too cold.
The voices behind the door are all mixed up together.
I’ve made a mistake. I can’t do much about it now. Maybe a new place…
Elizabeth hears her mother’s voice floating through the gaps of the kitchen door as clearly as if she were in a speech contest. Elizabeth draws her knees right up under her chin and blows hotly onto pyjama legs; she is fascinated by the clarity and spirited delivery of the sounds her mother makes. A crystal bridge has suddenly sprung up between mother’s vocal cords and her own eager ears..
The words are wrong. They’re the wrong words. What—mistake? Her mother doesn’t make mistakes. She’s too perfect for that!
It’s not as if we can just up stakes … your health…just because...take things slowly…and now we have Elizabeth to consider and her father...
They’re talking about me! Louder: talking bout me!
Oh God! What’re you doing here?
I just came. All pleased that the light has come tumbling into the hall with the near prospect of warmth beside the cooker.
You got out again. How did you get out?
Och it’s the fairy! The fairy here’s, Mother.
Yes, the fairy.
My two backbones, straight as railway lines, one I grew for you, my granddaughter. It’s the only way I can show my love.
You’re the cause of my wrinkles. Look! Every one in this face is here because of you.
Still, I must protect you in this new country.
Those New Zealanders love to introduce you to their country; they can pronounce the Maori names that you can’t because your tongue can’t yet wrap around Waitakere, Turangawaewae, and Whakarewarewa. So easy when you know how! Replace the wh sound with a faa. Oh you must go there. New Zealand is a wonderful place!
We’ve seen quite a bit of the country already: the blue-green glow worms at Waitomo Caves, the seafront at Napier with all the Norfolk Pines, the white strip of so many beaches and places where the earth’s crust has burst through at Rotorua where stinky sulphurous mists catch you unawares and you throw pennies for little Maori boys to dive naked off a bridge.
In our fourth summer in this country, we decide to do something different. We hire a caravan.
We three generations of women chug into Paihia, past the smelly freezing works at Moerewa (pronounced Moy-ray-wä) and the unfashionable whistlestop town of Kawakawa.
Paihia bay yawns politely at our arrival. There are two sides to this Bay of Islands town: the place and the tourist place. As tourists we do the famous Cream Trip to the outer islands and sail through the hole in the rock.
Descendents of pioneers snuggle in their villas between the gardens rambling and the white timbered Anglican church on the corner where cousins, uncles, nieces and aunts attend the parish festivals of the Christian calendar.
My granddaughter wants to go to the dairy with a girl she has just met at the motor camp.
I say no, you are not to go with her.
Elizabeth squints into my criss-crossed face. Why not?
You’re getting very cheeky Elizabeth.
I am not.
Who is this girl? What do you want to go to the dairy for? We don’t need anything.
We’re only going to the dairy Mrs —, just to hang about.
The girl in red shorts is far too old for Elizabeth; her tanned legs as obscenely bare as if she were an adult.
My granddaughter is not going to the dairy with you.
I have to protect her against the weaknesses that are all too obvious in her father. The boys would rip the clothes off her if they got the chance.
We are driving somewhere else for a swim. Smile at the little tart. How like Elizabeth to choose such a companion. It rather proves my point doesn’t it. She is scowling but I don’t care.
She has started the monthly but not at the moment. Otherwise I would not let her swim. My friend died after swimming with the monthly; standing in the sea she cried out to me with the red flowing down between her legs. Oh Maude she cried.
I tell this to Elizabeth so she won’t do anything so dangerous.
Did your friend die right there in the sea?
No, she died later.
Well then it could have been anything. It wasn’t just because she had her period!
I’m telling you Elizabeth, you do not swim at the time of the month. It can be dangerous.
We stop the Hillman Hunter at the top of a hill. Looking up, there’s fabulous blue sky, down there are the summer crowds—the great New Zealand summer that lasts for three months of warmth, soothing breezes, no vests or anything. This is why we came. See the red blossomed New Zealand Christmas tree, smell the barbequed meat wafting over the back garden
No one told us about barbeques. We weren’t warned. People don’t tell you.
My daughter and her husband were invited to a barbeque when we first arrived and naturally, they wanted to make a good first impression, so they dressed up as they would at home.
But they came home early. They were very embarrassed because they weren’t dressed properly. They turned up immaculately dressed, he in a suit. Everyone else was in sun frocks and shorts.
Oh dear there must be some mistake. Heavens! Did no one tell you?
These New Zealanders, they have such casual ideas, especially in summer!
The bank clerks and accountants swap their long socks and imitation tweed-crimplene walk shorts for cotton shorts for the break from Christmas and the New Year until the end of January.
I just about fell over when the bank manager strode out in his ridiculous business shorts to talk about our mortgage.
Now Mrs —, this is quite an unusual thing to have two women buying a house together. We don’t get that very often. It’s unusual.
He must wonder why I smile at him so brightly.
I absolutely have to laugh and he laughs back in an understanding way. Yes it is unusual isn’t it?
He must hold up his long white socks with circles of elastic and to think of his poor wife, scrubbing, scrubbing and soaking and soaking them…
Someone’s Mum just doesn’t know what someone’s Mum really oughter know. So someone’s Mum better get to know that Persil…washes whiter…whiter…whiter
A New Zealand radio jingle! This is a funny place. They speak so dreadfully. I don’t want Elizabeth picking up the accent.
You must always speak in your best Malone Road voice, otherwise when you go home, they’ll think you’ve turned into a New Zealander!
Oh! You’re all sandy. You can’t get into the back of the car like that. Take off your bathing suit.
There’s nowhere to change. We’re on the side of the road.
You can. Just put a towel around you.
I don’t want to. I’m fine this way. I’ll just sit on my towel.
The little trollop smirks at me. Oh no you won’t. I make my way with some difficulty with my sore hip to the side of the car where Elizabeth is standing on the road, behind the driver’s seat.
The wet bathing costume, the greeny-blue bathing costume with ruching all around is going to come off.
I yank it down her chest.
Ow that hurts!
See – I knew – there is sand—sand, all over her.
I pull the costume right off, on the side of the road.
Cars pass by.
A boy about the same age as her looks out the back window.
Is the outside door locked?
And the inside one as well?
I like to be secure. You never know who’s creeping around outside. Anyone could break into the lounge or the kitchen downstairs and then they could get upstairs to the bedrooms. So we lock those ones as well. There are terrible things going on these days.
There are chains on the bottom of the lounge and kitchen doors
If you need to go to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a glass of water you have to unlock one of the doors and then unhook the chain at the bottom. It’s a right business, but worth it.
All the furniture in this house is from when I was first married and from my parents. Pictures, chairs, the Japanese eggshell china, marble balls that my father brought back from China.
People in this country call me a character. They always laugh when I say things. The man who does my garden just about has a fit every time I open my mouth. He’s a bit simple though. People here think I’m funny. I tell them stories about the green sofa that I made four matches on. You don’t believe me. It’s true, if I can get a man and a woman together on that sofa, the match is made. Even 40 year olds like Sheila— her mother took her to every grand hotel in the country trying to meet a man. And where does she meet him? On my sofa!
I have tried to my duty by my granddaughter but she is more difficult than her mother ever was. I took her mother Nuala everywhere to everything I could, to 32 different teachers of dancing and speech and singing and she won prizes; now she’s quite famous, people often tell me they see her on TV. I told them both never to let a boy touch them… down there and how I used to carry a hat pin to the pictures and how I used it too…
Here’s a photo of me and my brothers Willie and Gordon in Antwerp in 1900. We look sad. I don’t know why. This was taken after Willie got rheumatic fever and before Gordon went off and joined Sinn Fein and we went home to Ireland. My mother refused to travel any longer and so her husband bought her family’s farm in Antrim and she never again moved from her horses, pigs and chickens.
Here’s another one: our parents in 1914 outside Ballymartin House. My father looks bad tempered in his naval uniform and twirling moustache, Mother is twisting her amber beads. I don’t know why she looks apologetic.
I heave around on the squishy green sofa and think what a pity my middle is now so fat because my legs are still slim. My husband loved my legs.
He spent all his spare time upstairs in the darkroom with his pictures. Nuala and I hardly ever saw him.
What are you women up to now? He would growl, but you could see his eyes were pleased with what he saw.
Oh nothing much, you know, I’d say with a wink.
That’s the trouble he said.
He worked day and night at the shipyards. An Englishman, he wouldn’t believe anything I told him. He said the Irish were all touched. I told him all about the holiday with my mother and brothers in the house with the locked and padlocked room and he said it was all rubbish, Maude.
But I told him—it was true. We’d been told by the people we hired the place from, that on no account must we go near this one room that was locked and padlocked. My mother didn’t care, there were plenty of other rooms. And then in the middle of the night the noises started like the house was being torn apart. The creaks and groans went on and on and they came from that room and my mother said ‘oh Jesus’. It was terrible. You don’t believe me!
My husband said it sounded like absolute bunkum, that there must be a reasonable explanation.
Early the next morning my mother says to us, come on, we’re leaving. And when we went downstairs, the door of that room was as wide open as you like! The locks and padlocks were on the floor! They were on the floor!
No one ever spent more than a night in that house.
My husband never came downstairs from his darkroom when my friend Joan visited. She’d have the spirits raising the table, the big thick one over there, would be up in the air. We’d be saying ‘is there anyone there’ and suddenly the cake stand would rise and go up and down the room. Oh yes, it did. But he didn’t believe me.
Elizabeth is in hospital but no one must know. It’s too shameful…she started chanting about feeling guilty and so we got the vicar as well as the doctor.
Doctor Morris and Reverend Thomas stand on either side of the bed. The doctor wears a white starched shirt and looks lugubriously at Elizabeth who is not saying anything, well nothing that makes any sense. She’s probably imagining things again.
This is an unhealthy situation Mrs—.
I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Doctor.
I remember this child at twelve - a disgusting specimen. She was weak and sickly. She needed to get out of the house, do some sport and get a tan.
Elizabeth had ran away with a man who was deeply tanned. Mediterranean, he looked like, maybe even a Maori. Not a dark Maori, you understand, lighter than most. Both his parents are as light skinned as you or me.
Now she’s home with us again.