Tuesday, September 21, 2010
In the sanctuary of the ramshackle workshop that clings to the side of the barn behind the house, Warren Keating sighs. He puts down the new handle he's shaping to fit the axe and hitches up his pants. Reluctantly he steps out into the scorched yard, takes off his hat to wipe sweat from his balding head, replaces it firmly pulling the brim down to shield his eyes. He stands for a minute to have a scratch. Underneath his navy-blue singlet his belly is warm and wet.
"Jesus Christ, Izzie," he calls. "It's only Frank coming. Dunno why you're getting into such a state about it." He roars at the dog. "Garth! Get in here, you Maori mongrel. In here!" Then quietly – "Come here boy, here boy. Good dog. There! You little bugger. Now you'll have to stay tied up." The dog wriggles with glee, turns on his back to have his belly tickled, jumps up and winds the chain around the man's legs. "God, dammit!"
Two other dogs, Kelpie cross types, snooze in the shade of the lean-to which houses the tractor. Now and then their chains rattle as they twitch and shake off flies. Warren crosses the yard to the back porch. The earth's baked so hard Izzie can sweep it clean as concrete. The water tank by the house is nearly empty. In fact, he's taken advantage of the prolonged dry spell to get up and paint some of the roof. Patch up some pipework. Bloody hot that corrugated iron was, but Izzie said it had to be done. They couldn't afford for the rain to run off. They needed it in the tank. She complained when the level got low. Said water came out of the taps looking more like cold soup. They plan to sink another bore hole next year. Had that old Maori geezer, Wiri Romati, up to take a look. He said there's plenty of water down below. They just have to get to it. They're well off compared to some, Warren reckons. At least they've got the creek to fall back on.
Kicking off his boots, he unhooks the screen door and pulls it shut behind him. Connie Francis is on the radio.
"Where the boys are, someone waits for me,
A smiling face, a warm embrace..."
A wet mop stops him in his tracks.
"Watch where you're walking, I've just done that bit." Izzie Keating slops the mop into her bucket. Bending forward, broad backside blocking his path, she squeezes out the head of the mop. Her faded red hair is encased in large rollers. A pink chiffon scarf holds them in place. Bare feet, cotton frock tucked up in her knickers, she's worked her way through kitchen and bedrooms until the lino gleams and you can't see the scuffs. The carpet runner that bisects the house has been out on the line for a beating. In the lounge, where the rich gold kauri floor frames a worn and faded carpet, she's hoovered cat and dog hairs off the sofa, flicked a duster over stuffed ducks and mounted antlers. Ancient shooting scenes, Scottish grouse and highland cattle, grace two walls. Above the cast iron fireplace, rosettes and trophies from agricultural shows. Best in Show 1945, Waikato & District; Best in Show 1946, Bay of Plenty A&P; First Prize, Dressage. Hawkes Bay A&P Show, 1946. There are more in a glass fronted cabinet. And photographs of a younger Izzie, Isabel McGregor she was then, in her twenties, on smartly turned out horses, jumping hurdles, accepting trophies, posing with prizes. A long time ago.
The bedrooms are at the back of the house with a bathroom tacked on beside the porch, opposite the wash house. Warren prefers the privacy of the outside long-drop where a large fig tree straddles the entrance. It had been good enough for Izzie's parents, and her grandparents before them. He can sit in there with the door open and not be seen. Izzie says he's welcome to it.
Viewed from the front, the house seems to nestle on a cushion of foliage and flowers. Native plants, swordlike flax, red kakabeak and purple koromiko mingle with brightly coloured dahlias, phlox and deep blue delphiniums, all semblance of order long since abandoned. A deep verandah provides shade. Set cornerwise, eight wide steps lead up to it from the driveway and the curving handrails rest on stout newel posts. Lacy fretwork and chaotic clusters of rambling roses soften the edges. The front door stands open to catch the breeze, its coloured glass panels lending an air of faded gentility. The haphazard roofline bears witness to numerous additions over the years as families expanded and funds allowed. Warren's newly painted sections stand out clearly against the old, faded green.
Not as grand as some old homesteads, but the kauri floors and original fireplaces will be a selling point one day, a real estate agent has told them, if they ever get around to selling. Warren can't see it himself. Blistered white paintwork, dried crisp – he's always telling kids off for picking it. He thought Izzie had made it pretty damn clear to the young feller that they weren't even thinking of it. She was polite, told him she understood why he was on the lookout, he had a job to do. Though neither she nor Warren can see these old places becoming as popular as he predicted. Too much bloody painting for a start. Then the young smart aleck got Izzie's back up by saying that if the Maoris got their way over land, well, they could miss out altogether. 'Search me,' Bill Puutu had said when they'd asked him what he could have meant. Bill works for Lands and Survey so he should know. That was months ago.
Warren sidesteps the wet patches. "You want the dog out, you've gotta keep the screen door shut. I keep telling you."
"What do you mean only Frank? He's bringing his new wife, remember."
"Oh, yeah. Jeeze, what did he want to go and marry a pommie for, eh? He had enough girls after him here without going all that bloody way to find a wife."
"Ours is not to reason why, and you remember that," warns Izzie. "We're going to make that poor girl welcome. She doesn't know a soul."
Warren picks his way to the kitchen and sniffs at the peanut brownies and the slab of shortbread cooling on the bench. Bugger me, Izzie's really going to town, he thinks. A banana cake and a pavlova. The little beaut.
"Don't even think of it!" Izzie roars as he's about to scoop up a fingerful of whipped cream from the edge of the pavlova. "Get yourself something useful to do and bring me in some kumara. Then you can get out of those clothes and run a bath. I'll get in before you. They'll be here soon."
The pork's already in the oven. He shot it last week. Bloody big boar. A treat because pig's getting scarce in this area. It's mainly deer these days. So when the dogs flushed out this boar he was onto it. Not like the old days though. He picks at some shortbread crumbs. Back then he wouldn't have used the rifle. The dogs would have brought it down. Tough on the dogs but more fun. Everything's gone a bit soft now. Can't find pig-dogs like you used to get. Tough buggers, You'd have a finder-bailer who'd go in and flush out the pig. Bark at him and keep him there till you caught up. Then the two holders would take over, one on each ear, till you got there to stick it. Many a dog he'd had to stitch up. Waxed thread and a darning needle.
The smell of roasting pork is beginning to waft around the house. His finger hovers over the pavlova again.
"The kumara!" Izzie yells.
They eat in the dining room at the long table Izzie's grandfather had made. A dartboard hangs on the wall above the sideboard. Over the fireplace a large mirror faces the front window which opens onto the verandah. Tucked into the edges of the frame are reminders of things to be done and people to be contacted. Bottles and tubes of veterinary medicines sit amongst the pottery figurines on the mantelpiece. Decoy ducks line up along the cream painted pelmet above the window and the faded curtains are printed with English hunting scenes. A drop front desk fills an alcove beside the fireplace, its surface littered with papers and copies of The New Zealand Farmer. On top the desk stands a lava lamp that no longer works and beside that, Izzie's library books: Peyton Place and Catherine Marshall's A Man Called Peter. She's just seen the film at the new cinema in Kawerau.
Frank has brought some beers. He's introduces his wife, Maureen – pale girl with shoulder length dark hair, teased a bit and flicked up at the ends – sprayed stiff, like they do these days. Delicate hands. Slim. Her dress stops just above the knees. No waist, no sleeves. Izzie's seen something like it in the English Woman's Own. And Jackie Kennedy wore something similar when she saw her on television in a demonstration in Farmers. She's not talked to Warren about ordering one yet. A television that is. Not that anyone can get a reception down here. There's talk of putting up masts at Manawahe. It's alright for people in Auckland. Has a look of Jackie, this girl, Izzie thinks. English accent. Opens her mouth when she speaks. At least she's put on sensible sandals.
The pavlova goes down well, but not the kumara. "It's just a sweet potato, love," Izzie explains. "Don't you get them in England?" She takes some dirty dishes out to the kitchen and returns with a tray. "We must seem a bit strange to you. A bit different from London, eh? But you'll be fine when you get to know a few people - get settled in a place of your own."
Maureen nods shyly.
Frank throws an arm around her shoulder and draws her awkwardly towards him. "Too right she will. No going back now, eh."
He smells of beer and Old Spice. The pencil thin tie he's arrived in didn't last long. Just for show, Izzie thinks. That'll be Maureen's influence. He's let his hair grow long and floppy at the front. She's seen that look in films. Giant. Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. That's it, James Dean. That's who Frank reminds her of now. About the same age too. Except he's dead now, of course. James Dean.
"Here," Izzie gestures to Maureen. "Pass me that plate, love."
Maureen pushes back her chair and collects up some dishes to go on the tray. Izzie notices her eyes brimming.
Warren opens another beer and offers the bottle to Frank. "Got some bloody good home brew, you know," he says. "This bought stuff is alright but it blows you up a bit. Wait till you taste my brew."
Izzie leads the way out of the kitchen then takes Maureen's arm. "Come on outside, sweetheart. Leave the men to themselves."
It's cooler on the verandah. Izzie pushes a cat off the bench and sits down, resting her back against the wall of the house. She pulls a tin of tobacco out of her pocket and a packet of papers.
Maureen leans over the verandah rail and gazes into the distance. Beyond the big jacaranda that drops blue petals like confetti over the scorched lawn, a few sheep graze on hillocky paddocks. Most lie resting, pressing themselves into the limited shade provided by an occasional tree.
Izzie points out the cone shape of Mount Edgecumbe to the right on the horizon at Kawerau. Putauaki the Maoris call it. A faint trace of smoke at the base of the mountain drifts upwards. "That's from the paper mill," Izzie says. "Frank worked there once after he and Warren had a row over something." That was not long after he'd come to them. Warren had told him to 'shape up or ship out'. So he had done. Till he got sick of the canteen and the single men's camp. Came back with his tail between his legs.
"Did you adopt him?" Maureen asks.
"No, love. He adopted us."
Scrubby manuka, tiny white blooms long gone, lines the dusty track that winds its way from the house down to the road. Here and there, tall spiky cabbage trees stand out like monuments. Beyond the road the land flattens out into a patchwork of small farms filling the basin of the plains through which the Tarawera and Rangitaiki rivers flow. If it wasn't for the poplar trees, Izzie tells Maureen, you'd be able to see Whale Island, down there to the left. And the Pacific Ocean.
Behind the house, grass gives way to native forest. Tree ferns, lacy parasols, stand out against a background of totara, red blossomed rata and tall rimu. Near vertical hills and deep ravines that form the eastern edge of the Rotoma ranges. Despite the stillness, the air is electric with the sound of cicadas.
"Want one?" Izzie offers the tin.
"No thanks, I don't."
Izzie runs her tongue along the edge of the paper. "Good for you."
A dog barks somewhere in the distance. Izzie stands up and peers down the track. "Looks like we've got more visitors."
A stream of dust half a mile away, and a horse cantering towards them. A dog keeps pace beside it. Maureen watches them draw closer. The rider waves.
"It's the Puutu kid from over the hill," says Izzie. "They're our nearest neighbours."
Pulling up sharply, a young Maori boy slides from the bare back of the horse leaving the rope reins dangling. He wafts away the dust he's churned up and squints towards them.
"G'day Mrs Keating. Mum sent me to tell you we're all going down the dippy pool tonight, when it's dark. She said you've gotta bring your visitors." He flicks a fly off his bare chest and lifts a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. "Are you gonna come then?"
Izzie scratches at her backside. "Well, I don't see why not."
The boy grins at Maureen. "You've come from England, eh?"
"I know about England. We read about it in school. The Queen lives there, eh?"
"Yes, she does," says Maureen, trying to appear relaxed. "And she rides. But I bet she can't ride bareback like you."
The boy draws a shape in the dust with his toe and grins at her. He takes hold of a handful of mane and swings up onto the horse's back. Gripping with his bare legs and feet he leans forward, underneath the horse's neck to retrieve the reins. "Oh, yeah, and Mum said can you give us a lend of your 'lectric fryer 'cos the aunties are coming tomorrow?"
"What's she going to cook" asks Izzie.
"I dunno." He turns the horse. "Food."
Izzie laughs. "Tell her we'll bring it tonight."
The boy digs his heels into the horse and they take off at a canter with the dog trailing behind. "Don't forget your togs, Mrs Keating," he cries over his shoulder. "Yahoo!" He waves both hands in the air.
"That was Jackie Puutu, "Izzie says. "Nice kid. He's twelve. They have five kiddies. Jackie's next to the oldest. Don't suppose you brought any togs with you, did you?"
"You know, swimming cossie."
Maureen shakes her head. "But I don't mind, I'll just watch."
"Mine'll fall off you, that's for sure." Izzie laughs. "Frank doesn't usually bother with any. You could do the same."
Maureen colours. "Oh, I think I'll be okay watching. I don't like cold water."
"Well, this'll suit you then, because it's warm."
Izzie drives the old Pontiac. Bottles of beer rattle around in the boot and towels and things. She's packed some peanut brownies for the Puutu kids and some pikelets that want eating up.
Warren sits in the front and tells her where the potholes are as the car lurches down the unmade track to the road. "Jesus Christ, woman, you're gonna have us in the ditch before we get to the road if you don't slow down."
Frank and Maureen are thrown from side to side on the back seat. Maureen grips the strap beside the door. Frank offers her a swig of beer but she turns away from him. Beer slops down the front of his shirt. It's smoother when they hit the road but that doesn't last for long. It's only three miles to the Puutu's turn off and then the lurching begins again. Izzie keeps apologizing and Warren keeps on cursing. There's nothing but blackness to be seen through the windows. Maureen clings to the strap.
Eventually the car swings to the right and they rattle across a cattle grid. Maureen jumps and grips Frank's arm. He laughs and pulls her to him. "Cattle grid," he says.
"Right through your bum it goes," laughs Izzie. "Sorry, sweetheart. I should have warned you."
Lights appear up ahead.
"Bill Puutu's a farm labourer for the Lands and Survey," Izzie explains. "Stockman really. They're lucky, a state house comes with the job."
Smaller than Izzie's and modern, every window is lit up. Curtains hang at rakish angles. To the side of the house, a car up on blocks. The rotary line is still full of washing. T-shirts in various sizes, shorts and underpants.
They pull up behind an old truck in front of the barn. Three dogs of indeterminate breed jostle for position to greet them, tails wagging. Warren leans heavily on the door as he gets out of the car. He opens the rear door for Maureen. Frank lurches out of the opposite side, bottle still in hand. Izzie eases herself out from behind the wheel.
"Bloody dogs," Warren mutters. "Hey, Bill, Jackie... come and get these dogs! We've got a lady here from England. Not used to all this."
The Puutu children push and shove their way out of the house. Three girls and two boys, all younger than Jackie. Barefoot, some of them are already in their togs, towels around their shoulders.
"This is my sister and my cousin," Jackie tells Maureen as he pushes two giggling little girls towards her. "She's five and she's four." He grabs hold of a boy by the arm. "And this is my brother Ricky. He's seven. And that's Mick, another cousin. He's the same as Ricky. And this is my sister Makera, she's ten." He grins at Maureen. "Rawiri's not coming," he adds. "He never comes."
The glow from the porch light dances on chubby cheeks, snot smeared faces, shy grins. The smallest girl leans into Maureen's side and takes her hand. Gazes up at her with enormous eyes. The others look her up and down for a few seconds, then, nudging each other, they run off giggling and flicking towels. Jackie follows them.
Bill comes out to greet them. "Izzie, Warren. And Frank! Bloody good to see you again, mate." He flings his arms around Frank. "And this is your new missus I guess." He takes Maureen's hand and grins broadly. "Brave lady to take on Frank, eh?"
Maureen blushes. Izzie comes to her rescue. "Take no notice of him, sweetheart. Come and meet Ketia." She takes Maureen by the arm and introduces Bill's wife who wipes her hands down the front of her dress before offering to shake.
"Gee, you've come a long way, eh," she says, twisting her long wavy hair into a roll which she fastens up at the back with a pink plastic comb.
Maureen smiles and nods. Frank leans over her shoulder, grinning. "Ketia Puutu," he slurs. "Yer still as beautiful as ever."
"And you still drinking as much as ever." Ketia looks heavenward and accepts his slobbery embrace. "Poor Maureen doesn't know what she's in for."
Jackie yells at them to hurry up. "You guys, come on. Us kids are going ahead."
Bill slings a car battery in a harness onto his back. Warren carries the lamps. He hands Maureen a torch. "Maybe get ourselves some crayfish further along the creek." She looks at him blankly. "They get dazzled by the light." She nods, but looks puzzled. Mmm, he thinks. Frank's got his work cut out, that's for sure.
It isn't easy walking the track in darkness even when you know the way. Izzie watches Maureen stumble along holding onto the back of Frank's shirt. He sways from side to side. The trees cast eerie shadows. Ferns brush their faces and manuka twigs scratch at their arms and legs. Giant moths, attracted by the torchlight, dive at them like kamikaze pilots. A morpork calls. A startled pheasant shatters the quiet with its raucous cry and frantic flight. Maureen jumps, letting out a squeal that excites the dogs. They leap at her, tails wagging. Izzie shoos them off and takes her hand.
"Don't suppose you get much wildlife in London, do you," she says. "There's nothing here that bites. No snakes. May come across a weta or some other big bug but nothing to worry about." She laughs. "Jeezes girl, you're shaking like a leaf."
The track opens out into a clearing and in front of them a creek winds its way around ancient tree stumps and volcanic rocks. Maureen puts her hand to her mouth and nose. "What's that?" she gasps.
Izzie laughs. "Rotten eggs." She waves a hand in front of her nose. "It's the sulphur. You get used to it."
Bill fixes the lamps to a tree and suddenly the clearing is floodlit. The children are already in the water, splashing and squealing. A rope hangs from an overhanging branch and little Puutus shimmy up its length then drop off into the deepest part.
"Watch out for the possums," Bill calls to Maureen. "Bet you don't get possums where you come from, eh."
"See, it's warm," says Izzie. "Comes out of the ground just here. Cold upstream, cold downstream, but just here it's warm. Bloody good for the aches and pains." In one move she slips out of her frock and pulls up the straps to her swimming costume. "Now you kids quit splashing," she calls, to no effect. "You little buggers. Wait till I get my hands on you." In the darkness, squeals of delight.
Maureen sits with her back against a tree. Bill is in the water with the children and Warren too. Ketia eases herself in beside Izzie and they settle on a submerged ledge with the water up to their breasts.
"Bit quiet for Frank, isn't she?" Ketia whispers.
Izzie looks across to where Maureen is crouched, her hand covering her nose. "Aw, she'll come around. Give her time. She's a city girl, you can tell. Probably feels more comfortable back in Auckland."
"She's got a real pommie accent, eh."
Izzie leans back and closes her eyes.
Ketia watches Maureen shoo the dogs away. "Can't see Frank wanting to stay in Auckland."
"Me neither," says Izzie, shifting her position on the ledge. She slips deeper into the water so that it laps over her shoulders. Moving her head from side to side, round and around, she lets the warmth work on the stiffness in her neck.
Since Frank left for his trip overseas they'd managed on their own. But it seemed to get harder every year. Warren had missed him, she knew that, as much as if he'd been his own son. The two men shared a passion for hunting. As it turned out, neither of them could work up the same passion for farming. It was mainly left to her to notice what needed doing. Booking the shearers, dealing with the stock agents, hiring hands. And it was getting to be too much. The place was going to wrack and ruin. But she'd known Warren was no farmer when she married him. It wasn't her land he was after, and she loved him back for it. After all, she was no oil painting and he could have had his pick of the local beauties. He was handsome back then, in a quiet, rugged sort of way. Shy. A friend of her brothers, he'd always just been there, in the background, keeping an eye out for her. Helping with the horses, running her to shows when her father was tied up. She was thirty-four before he plucked up the courage to pop the question.
"That man came around again yesterday," Izzie tells Ketia.
"That feller wanting to know if we were interested in selling up."
"Oh yeah, and what did you tell him?"
"Told him to bugger off, what do you think."
Suddenly the children start squealing and yelling. Sounds of splashing drown further conversation. Frank is in the water, half dressed, throwing himself forward and diving to reach for the children's feet. They kick out at him, laughing. On the bank, Maureen stands up to see what's going on.
Frank calls to her. "Come on in." She shakes her head. "What's the matter? Not good enough for you, eh?"
Izzie looks up.
"Fuckin' stuck up bitch," Frank mutters.
Everyone hears him.
"Frank, that's enough," says Warren. "No need for that."
"Oh, shit," says Izzie, under her breath.
On the bank, Maureen stiffens. Izzie can't see her face. Ketia sinks deeper but turns to look at the English girl.
In the water, the children turn on Frank."Shut up, Frank. You shut up, Frank," they chant, still laughing. "You're drunk, Mr Frank. You're drunk," they squeal, kicking water into his face.
"Too bloody right I am," Frank yells. "Gotta be drunk to get close to her majesty there."
"Frank, cut it out," says Warren. "There's kids here."
"Kids don't mind me," Frank counters. "Don't mind me, do you kids?"
"Frank's drunk," they squeal, laughing and splashing to get further away from him.
Izzie looks at Maureen and wonders how well she knows Frank. Bloody men. She knows how charming he can be.
"Come on sweetie," Frank taunts. "Let's see what you're made of."
Bill wades up to Frank and puts an arm around his shoulder. "Hey, cut it out, man. Leave the girl alone, eh?"
"Bill, you're bloody lucky to have your Ketia. She's a good sport, eh, your Ketia."
"Come on mate, you need to sober up a bit."
Frank pushes him away, roughly. "Piss off, man. I'm going to get my wife."
Bill turns to the children. "Okay kids, come on. Time to go."
"Aw, not yet Dad, it's too early. We've got no school."
"Too early yet, Dad," echoes Frank.
"Out!" orders Bill.
"Look kids, farting bubbles," Frank calls.
The children squeal with delight. "Frank's farting," they laugh.
"Out!" yells Bill. "Ketia, see to them."
Izzie closes in on Frank. "You're showing yourself up, you bastard," she hisses at him. "Why can't you grow up?"
"Leave it out, Izzie. We're having a good time." He heaves himself out of the water and picks his way over to where Maureen stands against the tree. "Come on, babe," he croons, draping his wet body against her. She turns her head away. He puts his arms around her shoulders and pulls her against him. She struggles to free herself, wet now, all down her front. "Aw, babe," Frank whines. He pulls at the should straps to her dress, dragging them down her arm.
She struggles to replace them. "Frank, don't. The children..."
"Bugger the kids, they don't mind." He presses against her, his lips searching for hers. The smell of beer mingles with the sulphur and the sultry steam that rises from the water. He tugs at the buttons down the front of her dress. Reaches a hand down to the hem of her skirt.
"I'm going to be sick," Maureen hisses. She puts her hand to her mouth and turns away from him. With her other hand she struggles to re-arrange her dishevelled clothing. He continues to press his wet body against her, kissing her neck and shoulders. Suddenly a dripping brown body careers into him, knocking him sideways.
"You just leave her alone, you drunken bastard." Taken by surprise, Frank steps back. Jackie Puutu head-butts him in the stomach. "Leave her alone."
Frank is winded. "You little shit!" he cries.
"Jackie, get out of the way!" Bill shouts from the water. "Leave him, son, leave him." He leaps up onto the bank and runs to the boy, pushing him aside. But Jackie faces Frank and glares at him, arms folded, then on his hips, then folded. Izzie can see that he's a bit surprised at his own boldness, breathing heavily and close to tears.
Frank backs off and stumbles back into the water. "Okay, okay, I give in. Where's everyone going?"
Bill puts an arm around Jackie's shoulders and shepherds him towards his mother. "Come on, tama," he says. "Come on, son. He's just a crazy pakeha."
Ketia bundles the smaller children into towels. They are stunned into silence. Wide-eyed, they stand beside their mother, gazing up at Jackie.
Izzie is out of the water now and pulling on her frock. Frank stands looking at the general retreat and shrugs helplessly. "What? What did I do? Tell me... what did I do?"
"Oh just shut up, Frank," Izzie snaps. "Save your breath." She catches Maureen's attention and casts her eyes heavenward. "What are we gonna do with him, eh?" Maureen straightens her hair and forces a smile.
Warren is still in the water. He takes Frank by the arm. "You dumb sod. You never know when to stop, do you. It's about time someone really kicked your arse."
Bill throws some clothes at Frank. "Get dressed, mate. The party's over."
Maureen sits in the front with Izzie. Frank flakes out on the back seat. Warren props him over to one side and squeezes in beside him.
"Can't take his booze," Warren says to Maureen. "Silly bugger. Always been the same. He doesn't mean any harm."
"He's a fool," says Izzie. "A bloody fool." She pats Maureen's knee. "He'll be fine in the morning, nice as pie, you wait and see." She glances sideways and sees Maureen's cheeks glistening. "Never remembers anything, that's the trouble."
They leave Frank to sleep it off in the car. Izzie shows Maureen to the bedroom. "This is our room. We thought we'd give it to you two tonight. Too bad about Frank." She turns back the candlewick bedspread and smoothes the pillows. "You'll be fine in here and he won't wake until morning. He never does."
Maureen nods and sits on the edge of the bed.
Izzie perches beside her. "You've not known him very long, have you?" Maureen shakes her head. "Dear Lord," says Izzie, taking hold of her hand. "And you've come all this way."
"I hate it when he drinks," Maureen says, fighting back tears. "But I do love him."
"Of course you do," says Izzie. "We all do."
"Why does he do it?"
Izzie shakes her head. "If it's any consolation, I've never seen him violent. He just acts stupid. Embarrassing."
Maureen blows her nose again. "It happened on the way over. On the ship. A couple of times. I had no idea he had this problem. He won't discuss it because when he's sober he's wonderful."
"Yeah, that's the way it works, it seems. Look, if you ever need me, you just pick up the phone."
"With Frank, sometimes, it's like walking on eggshells. You have to learn to read the signs. We've known him a long time but still, there's things he just doesn't talk about. From his past down south. I don't know if he's talked to you about it?"
Maureen shakes her head. "I feel so stupid. I mean, everything's so different here. I didn't think it would be so different. He never told me."
"Things'll seem better in the morning."
"It was a mistake to come. It's not what I expected." Maureen gets up and paces around the bed. "He's no job, I've no job. We've nowhere to live. We're just sleeping on someone's settee. I wish I'd never agreed to come."
Izzie reaches out and takes her hand. Pulls her down to sit on the bed beside her. "But you've only been here a few weeks, sweetheart. Give him a chance. And you'll get work. A girl like you. Up in Auckland." She pats Maureen's hand. "Plenty of work for a girl like you. You'll see. What about your family? That'll be who you're missing."
Maureen blows her nose again. "No, I only have a sister."
"Oh, says Izzie. "Well, get some sleep, eh? A whole bed to yourself." She winks. "Make the most of it."
Warren is sitting outside on the verandah having a last smoke. He offers Izzie a puff as she sits down beside him. From out of the darkness a cat comes up to rub itself against their legs. The air is heavy and humid – scented with jasmine which covers the lopsided pergola. Wet towels hang over the verandah rail. Izzie slaps at a sandfly on her ankle. She lifts up one leg and drapes it over Warren's lap. Wafts her skirt between her legs to get a breeze up there.
"Still hot," she says.
They sit listening to the crickets.
"Might take the dogs up the gulley track tomorrow. Clear out a few rabbits," Warren says.
Izzie nods. "You'll need to check the girth on the stock saddle if Frank's going to use it. The buckle's dodgy."
Another cat pads along the verandah and jumps up onto the bench to rub against Izzie. She strokes the length of its back and it tenses with joy. "That man called again yesterday," she says.
"Who was that then?"
"That real estate man, from town."
"I told him we weren't interested."
Warren takes a final draw on his cigarette, squeezes out the stub between finger and thumb and flicks it over the verandah rail. "Good for you." He puts his arm around her shoulders. "Things'll come right," he says. "You'll see."
Copyrite: Christine Stanley
Monday, September 20, 2010
Sunday, September 5, 2010
I look down at my paper. Look at his. Look at her. Lean towards him. "Brian," I whisper, behind my hand. "Her breasts don't look anything like that."
He glares at me. Peers at her. Scrutinizes his work. "Yes they do," he says and carries on drawing.
I can't believe I'm doing this. I've got a bag packed with my dressing gown and my flip flops. They said to bring a book to read, just in case, but I'm not into reading really. I picked up a Hello magazine at the paper stall in the bus station. Room 54 I'm looking for.
I didn't know whether to wear my earrings or not. I thought it might look a bit overdressed, so I took some out. Just left my studs and the big hoops. I took the stud out of my nose. I thought it might look like a zit in a drawing. Taking my kit off is no big deal. What I'm worried about is whether I can keep still. They said they'd tell me the poses. But what if I get cramp, or the twitches? And what do I do when I've got my period? Uh oh, here it is.
I peep around the open door. A man stands with his back to me. I cough, to attract his attention, and he turns, head tilted in query.
"Hi, I'm Karen... er, the model."
"Karen, you found us. Well done. Didn't change your mind then?"
"No, no, I'm dead keen. Really." A bow tie! A fucking bow tie!
"Super. I'm sure you're going to be a great asset to us. Come on through. I'll show you where to stow your bag. Do you want a coffee? I'm Paul, by the way."
He looks young for a lecturer. Dark hair brushes the collar of his crumpled linen jacket, sleeves pushed up to the elbows, pockets bulging. And the bow tie, now I see it close up, is not one of those clip on types. It's hand-tied and covered with purple, pink and green splodges, like the painting of Monet's garden. It tones in with the stripe on his shirt.
I follow him into a cluttered office. Three desks piled high with books and folders. Walls papered with posters, newspaper cuttings, timetables, sketches.
"We all muck in here," Paul says. "Did you bring a mug? If not we're bound to have a spare. If it hasn't got a paintbrush in it, it's for coffee... but don't count on that."
I drop my bag on the floor and hang up my jacket on a spare peg. He talks over his shoulder while making the coffee.
The walls are covered with students' work. Nudes in various poses. Big, bold, bulging bits. Firm thighs and floppy penises. Wrinkled brows and breasts. Big feet stretching out towards me like the figures in the Michelangelo pictures we've looked at in my class. Way, way above our standard. There are some very large canvases propped up against one wall, work in progress by the look of it, and stools and easels dotted about the paint-splattered floor. I mustn't gawp, I think. Look as if you're used to it.
"This is second year work," Paul says. "We don't usually leave stuff on the walls, it gets nicked, but we had crits late last night and we're finishing off this morning."
I nod. "It looks fantastic." Christ, what a dumb thing to say.
"So we won't actually need you until after lunch. It'll give you time to find your feet, get settled in."
"Thanks," I say weakly. "Where do I get... er... changed?"
"Well, Cactus uses the office, or sometimes she uses the loos down the corridor, first left then right."
"Yes, she's been with us for years. Our most experienced model. Any problems, ask her. She knows as much as we do I reckon. Actually, it's her birthday today and we're all going down to the pub at lunch time. You'll come, won't you?"
"Thanks, I'd like that." What sort of a name is Cactus, I wonder? Later, in the pub, she introduces herself.
"G'day, I hear you're the new competition."
She looks like Zandra Rhodes on a bad day. It's hard to tell how old she is, and no one's guessing, but not young. Australian. Henna'd hair, long, caught up on one side with a ribbon and some beads. Drop-out from a hippie trail that petered out in Clapham. Nobody knows why she moved to St Albans but she's been at the art college for years. Did St Martins and Goldsmiths and was hung in the National Portrait Gallery several times she reckoned. BP Portrait Awards, and it was true because I checked. Professional interest. If I was to learn from her I needed to check out her credentials.
It's a short pose to start. Paul shows me what he wants then takes my dressing gown from me. If he hadn't I don't think I would have let it go. He's very good. Never lets on that it's my first time. Gives the students their instructions and then winks at me. All I can hear is the scratch, scratch of charcoal on paper. I just look down at my feet and try to calm the tremor in my knee.
Later, in the loo getting dressed, Cactus bursts in from her class. I have my back to her and she's going on about some 'bloody little shit' in her class. I turn to say something and that's when I notice her breast. Or rather, the lack of it. Immediately I look away but she's noticed.
"Aw don't let the boob freak you, kid. We're all used to it around here. Did you hear what I was telling you about that snotty little shit in Duncan's group?"
I'm a bit thrown, but collect myself together quickly and we go down to the refectory for a coffee. I don't mention her breast, but that night I can't get her out of my mind. Next day I have a word with Paul.
"Let me show you something," he says and leads the way into a store room. He rummages through print drawers pulling out sheet after sheet. He clears a space on the bench and spreads out the contents of an old portfolio. "This work goes back years," he says, "before Cactus became ill. She always brought out the best in students, but after her op she was even better. Look at this." He points out a pencil sketch in which a younger Cactus is depicted curled in a foetal position. Another, lying on her back. One sitting reading a book. "Now look at these later ones", Paul urges. "Look at the face."
I don't quite know what he's getting at but even my inexperienced eye can see that there's something different about the later drawings. It's as if the artist has tried to get inside her to show her thoughts and emotions. You could feel the life within the body. You could sense the artist striving to capture the essence of Cactus.
"I've never known a model like her," says Paul. "She has the ability to make her body fluid and somehow the students respond to this. Whatever she's thinking is there in her face. And she can hold it without becoming wooden." He traces the outline of a sketch with his finger. "And after her operation it was as if the students were drawn to see more in her. More than the external features. She demanded their close scrutiny, and it paid off." He turns up some more sheets. "Look, fluidity. Age doesn't matter. Never do you see a sketch of Cactus that looks wooden. The scar doesn't matter. Our results soared."
I leaf through the work, captivated by the images. Cactus with long hair... Cactus with no hair... Cactus with headscarf. Cactus with a trace of silver, light as a baby's breathe on a frosty morning. Applied with love.
"We knew the op wouldn't stop her," Paul adds, "and it hasn't. She rules this place and she knows it."
I didn't take to modelling. I surprised myself in that. I thought I'd be a natural and I tried hard for three or four months because I really liked the idea of it. Cactus thought it was funny. She tries to be helpful in her own inimitable way.
"You're too tight-arsed", she says. "It shows in your face."
She resolves to take me under her wing and I move in with her when her flatmate leaves. We go up to London to the galleries... Tit training she calls it. We look at lots of nudes. Work by Stanley Spencer and Lucien Freud. She met Freud once, she says. Knew one of his models, years ago. Henrietta somebody or other. Married a poet.
She takes me around the back streets of Soho and shows me where the clubs were, where artists and models used to meet. Coffee bars where poets read their work. She's a mine of information, from erotica to high art. She once worked in Paris as a Bluebell girl she said. Not the Bluebells but like them. A poser rather than a dancer. But she never did stripping. She preferred a bit of class, she said. It was in Paris that she got into modelling for artists. Then she came back to London and phoned around the art colleges. She has loads of art books and posters and she's always being invited to private viewings where she takes me and introduces me as her apprentice.
To Paul's relief I quit modelling. Saves him the trouble of sacking me. But I stay on, no pay, tidying up. And when I can, I join in the classes. The following year I enrol. I become obsessed with life drawing. I draw Cactus day and night. On paper she's... serene. So different from the exuberant creature she is to live with. And she transforms my life. Shows me possibilities I hadn't even dreamed of. Opens doors I didn't even know existed. And shoves me headlong through them, into situations like... this. Not the first, but certainly the most important award ceremony I've achieved...
...I feel myself being pushed forward. Gentle pats of encouragement. Smiles and nods of approval. An envelope is pressed into one hand and a microphone to the other. Paul throws an arm around my shoulders and kisses me hard. "You did it, babe," he whispers. "I knew you would."
There's applause and the woman in black looks straight at me. "Congratulations, Karen. This is very well deserved," she says.
Someone brings Cactus and props her on an easel beside me. Cameras flash.
Later, on the way home, Paul reminds me that we need to stop at the chemist for more morphine. They know us well by now. We sign for a box of capsules and pop in next door for some fish and chips.
The nurse comes out to the kitchen when she hears the front door. "How did it go then?" she asks.
"She did it," Paul says. "Just like we said she would."
"That's fantastic." She hugs me. "Congratulations. She'll be so chuffed." She accepts some chips while putting on her coat. "I'll see you tomorrow evening. Janice will be here in the morning."
"Great. Thanks so much for staying on a bit," I say. Paul sees her out.
I go through to the front room which is being used as a bedroom. The single lamp on the bookshelf gives a warm glow and brings out the rich, vermilion in the curtains. Throne-like, a commode fills one corner, past its usefulness now but we just haven't got around to taking it back to the Red Cross. The table is littered with nursing paraphernalia, at odds with the pieces of sculpture which have been pushed to one side. Above the fireplace is a large canvas, unframed, acrylic. A woman reclining, nude. Part of my degree work. Paul's watercolours cover the remaining white walls. Landscapes from Tuscany, the Dordogne and Derbyshire. A bed sticks out from the wall at an awkward angle so that people can move around it. It hums, pulsating imperceptibly as the ripple mattress does its stuff.
From the mound of pillows a voice, weak, yet cutting as ever. "You're back then. About bloody time."
I lean forward and kiss the shrivelled cheek. "Yep. Brought some chips. Do you want some?"
"Go on then... aren't you going to ask me how we got on?"
"You'll tell me anyway." The eyes close and the head relaxes into the pillows.
I take the wrinkled hand resting on the bedspread and into it I press the envelope, wrapping the fingers around it. "This is for you," I say. "We won."
The eyes remain closed, but a slow smile creeps across the tired features. "That'll pay for the undertaker then," she whispers, pushing the envelope towards me.
I flop into the armchair beside the bed. I'm weary too. There are not many nights that I don't get up to see to her. She still hallucinates. It's the morphine, the doctor tells us.
Paul comes in with a cup of tea. "Do you think she's pleased?" he asks.
"Of course she is," I answer, then louder, so she can hear me, "but she won't admit it. Prickly bugger." Her eyes don't open but she forces a smile.
The tea is good. I doze. When I come to I can hear Paul moving around upstairs. Cactus is asleep. The automatic syringe driver whirs as it spurts another dose of painkiller into her frail body - more angles, now, than curves.
Once, Paul asked me if we were lovers. I remember being deliberately vague. "Yes, I love her."
We came very close to being lovers I think, but our relationship was more sensual than sexual. On the surface she came across as a really hard case. Tough, brash, prickly as hell. Like her name-sake, not beautiful, but if treated right, given to rare moments of extravagantly lavish display. When Cactus flowered she held everyone in her spell. And she still has the capacity to surprise us.
A couple of weeks ago I found her passport when looking for something she wanted in an old suitcase. It expired in 1975. She's probably an illegal immigrant. Geraldine, her name was... is. Geraldine Marian Short. Born Adelaide, 1934. Married. Maiden name Carpenter. There's a child on the passport too. A boy. Born 1956. Graham. Stamps from different countries. Malaya, Fiji, Singapore, India.
"Dead," she says when I ask about the child. Then she turns away from me.
"What about your husband?" I persist, feeling I ought to notify somebody that she's near death. She'd always said there was no one.
"No husband," she says. "With the fairies."
We can't get any sense out of her on this subject. She obviously doesn't want to be drawn. Within the pages of her old passport a very different life is hidden. One she doesn't want to share with us. An Australian childhood. A mother and father who probably went to their graves not knowing what had become of their daughter. How had they felt? What had happened to make her want to cut herself off so completely from her former life? We'll probably never know. In her work Cactus exposed herself on a daily basis but she only let people see the parts of her she was willing to share.
The night she died I was with her, sleeping in the armchair. Her breathing has rattled for days, but I'm awakened by a change of pitch. I call Paul to come downstairs and we stand beside the bed feeling helpless, but strangely privileged. I pull up a chair and hold her hand. The rattling eases and we become aware that her breathing is slowing down. For a second I think, 'Oh, she's feeling more comfortable'. Then, like an engine coming into a station, it slows... and purrs... and comes to a halt.
We sit for awhile, each with our own thoughts. Paul's hand shakes as I take hold of it. Gradually we become aware of the sound of the syringe driver still pumping morphine into her. We disconnect the pump and switch off the ripple mattress. The room is suddenly quiet for the first time in months.
The funeral is a colourful affair. The front room reverts back to its former use. All her things get taken down to Oxfam as she wanted. Only the images remain. Photographs, sketches, paintings, prints. And my last drawing, completed the night she died... Still Life with Cactus.