Tata Beach, New Year’s Eve, 1974. Three weeks without rain. The motels have had the water tanker in, but the locals are toughing it out and peering wistfully across the Bay at the clouds that sometimes come and recline on the West Coast ranges. The air at sea level is hazy with evaporation and by four in the afternoon the black grid-work of the oil rig they’re building in the shelter of the Bay has disappeared completely.
I’m on the beach with David McDonald, my same-age cousin, who has scraped through school C and is going into the army next year. He and I can still spend comfortable time together if we have a project. We’re busy building a trap just below the notch of ‘our’ track, the one through the empty lot between the McDonalds’ house and the beach. David has done all the digging. We cover the pit with criss-crossed sticks, then newspaper, and a layer of sand. It’s been my job to imagine what’ll happen when our older sisters, Mary and Steph, come back from their walk and fall into it. I can see them taking the plunge together, though Mary will be trailing Steph, eyes squinted, shoulders hunched, talking.
Mum arrives on the unsealed road between the track and the beach. She says to me, ‘Don’t wander off, Lif, Auntie Thel will need another pair of hands.’ She means to help prepare dinner. This evening there’s to be a big family barbecue at the bottom of the McDonalds’ garden.
Mum says, ‘Don’t disappear’, then disappears herself—wades into the waist-high grass of the empty lot and lies down. We wait for a bit, and then go over. Mum looks comfortable, if incongruous. She says, ‘I won’t take sides.’ Then, ‘Let’s see if anyone misses me.’ David and I understand that we’re party to an experiment and mustn’t spoil it for her. We go back and check the beach again. There’s still no sign of Steph and Mary. David is sick of waiting so proposes I go get his little sister and mine, and ‘lure them in’. He demonstrates by walking towards the trap, more upright than he ever is, like he’s already practising for army drills.
Dad and both uncles have gone out early in Uncle Colin’s trailer sailer. I see that they must be back because someone has caught an eel and cut it up. It’s on the lawn between the house and the old fibrolite bach—big, grey segments still twitching as if preparing to swim away into the shade under the lemon tree.
The kids are in the bach. They’re playing a game with some toys. I climb up on the top bunk and lean over to watch them. One of the girls’ dolls has been murdered, and the teddy and golly are taking turns having sex with the body. I ask, ‘Where do you get this stuff?’ and Sara says, ‘Its called necrophilia. Mary read me a bit out of a book.’ This might be the answer to my question, but really I want to know something else, something that can’t be explained by tracing it back to a book. Margaret is just going along with my sister. But Sara’s been shocked, and this is an attempt to outstrip that shock by fearlessly flaunting the most preposterously horrible thing she can think of, to be big and electric, like a little cat with all its hair standing on end. It worries me so I say, ‘Let’s go down to the beach and build a big trap to catch Steph and Mary.’ The trap is built already and I want one of them to fall into it, but my insincere invitation has got to be better than these made-up atrocities. They just shake their heads. They’re having way too much fun to think of moving. And, because they have a witness the game is getting worse: so I leave.
Dad is back, so I gravitate to the house we’re renting. I still have the habit of going to him for reassurance. The day isn’t exactly riddled with darkness, but there was necrophilia, and a too-lively dead eel, and a human voice among the cicadas saying let’s see if anyone misses me.
I find Dad lying down. His back is sore. He tells me he was stupid. When they got to Ururoa he jumped out into the shallows with the anchor in his arms. I test how bad he is by trying to worry him. ‘Mary and Steph have been out since before breakfast and they only took apples.’ But he doesn’t even look interested in this information, so I let him be.
Auntie Thel calls out to me and I go up into the McDonalds’ house to see what she wants. She asks me to go along the road to Auntie Joan’s to borrow another steamer for the mussels.
Auntie Joan and Uncle Jim Campbell came to Tata about a year ago after several happy summer holidays. Jim’s working part-time at a mechanic’s in Takaka. Joan doesn’t have to clean schools anymore. ‘I’m a lady of leisure now,’ she says as she fixes me a G & T, my first. She lets me search her bookcase. She says, ‘Your mother was always a reader. She used to make us keep the light on till she’d finished her book.’ ‘By force of will?’ I ask, since that would be a story about my mother with a good forecast for me in it. ‘Oh no,’ says Joan, ‘her bed was beside the light switch.’ I want to know whether Mum read any of these books. I’ve decided I’ll read a book my mother liked and which no one bothers with nowadays. It feels like some kind of adventure. I’m missing adventure. The men were out on the water, with the honeycombed coastline, hidden coves, shags, oystercatchers and little round-finned dolphins. David only got left behind because he slept in. Mary and Steph set out for Wainui, walking around the rocks. The kids are crazy puffed-up little cats. And then there’s my oldest cousin, Andrew. Auntie Joan tells me that Andrew’s in the back bedroom. He got sunburned hitching home from a rock concert up north. ‘You should pop your head around the door and say hello.’
Andrew is lying very still. He speaks softly and slowly. His adventures aren’t spilling, only seeping out of him. His plaited leather bracelet has left a white strip on his wrist, like a thin slice of some earlier self. He’s transformed, and not just by sunburn.
I take the steamer and my gin buzz and Anne of Avonlea from the Campbells’ bach, plus an injunction for Thel about No Pineapple Jelly, and go back along the road.
Uncle Colin is standing in the driveway, looking left and right. ‘Have you seen your mother?’ I shake my head and try to think what I can ask that will get him to say something she’ll overhear. If she’s even still there. She might have got up, brushed herself off and gone back to our place. Yes. She’ll be there, standing at the sink filling a hot-water bottle for Dad’s back.
But its Dad who is up. He’s in Thel’s kitchen shucking paua. Thel tells me to put the steamer on the stovetop and stay right where I am. ‘I have another job for you.’
Mary would say, ‘What if I don’t want a job?’ Clever and quizzical. Or, if it was Mum asking, ‘Oh, a job. You’d think you were giving me a present!’ Mary is always resisting convention. According to her, making fussy preparations for entertaining is conventional— something women only do to show off to each other.
When Dad is done with the paua Thel hands me the basin full of them, and a bowl of chopped onions. She sends me down to the garage where there’s a moulie clamped to the workbench. I spend the next hour feeding rubbery paua and watery onion into the hopper in alternate handfuls, winding the handle, to make a glistening black rope.
The bowl is full of minced paua when Joan arrives with fruit salad and Christmas cake and, instead of going upstairs to Thel, walks straight through the garage to the backyard, but not before telling me to wash my hands and fetch my grandmother.
Grandma is living in a bach at the very top of the lagoon. There’s a sand track between the mats of rubbery weeds that edge the lagoon, and people’s gardens. Partway along it I see a weasel and a weka. The weka is highstepping through the grass, the weasel undulating along the track ahead of me like a strip of empty fur pulled on a string. Grandma is ready. She smoothes her Osti Frock and says that she’s put on her ‘plumb gown’ for ‘the festivities’. I’m a tone-deaf teenager and can’t detect satire unless its me being satirical, so I only tell her she looks very nice. She says she likes my hair tied back. I don’t want to be complimented. I hate having dirty hair. Mary would say, ‘Why do you care? Who are you trying to impress at a family barbecue?’ But I want to be pretty in the photographs.
When Grandma and I arrive back at the McDonalds’ almost everyone is already gathered under the young birches. Sara and Margaret are squeaking excitedly about how David fell into someone’s trap. David winks at me over their heads. Mary and Steph have dragged in. They were trapped by the tide, they say, and have spent hours hanging on to flax bushes at the top of a salt-scoured cliff. Mary moans that she’s too tired to carry plates. Dad is lying on the grass with a whisky glass balanced in the forest of thick hair on his sternum, wincing wherever he lifts his head to take a sip. Andrew is sitting with David. They might both be boys, but they’re boys of different species. Andrew doesn’t have any idea what to ask about motorbikes, and David can’t get a handle on the rock festival at Ngaruawahia. They settle on discussing whether Andrew should pop his sunburn blisters.
The aunts are whispering. This is odd. They haven’t been completely comfortable with each other since Joan moved to Tata. Dad likes to say that the Campbells and McDonalds are feuding, which is a sophisticated history joke. Mock epic. I shuffle nearer so that Thel and Joan are audible. They are talking about bursitis. Bursitis and bursting blisters. There’s always the body. It’s a sort of safe topic. Grandma remarks on Margaret’s stringy hair. Mary says, ‘We all have stringy hair but only Elizabeth minds.’ There’s a gap where Mum might remark, ‘Elizabeth likes to take care of her appearance.’ (Which would be followed by Mary taking offence and saying there were more important things, and then some stuff about triviality as if she’s in a secret cell making its manifesto and, sometime in the future, making war on the world.) The gap is very strange. I’m not used to having my differences pointed out and then not used to demonstrate something about someone else. Then Uncle Colin pipes up to promise that we’ll all go to the Takaka river tomorrow to wash.
A moment later, when Auntie Joan passes me my paua fritter, she confides. ‘Actually what your mother used to do about the bedroom light was stay silent. She just wouldn’t hear our protests.’
Once I’ve polished off two sausages and three fritters I go to fetch Mum. But where she was lying there’s a goat. It’s tethered by a long chain to a metal stake. It looks at me with eyes like coin slots in a phone box. One of those eyes should be a coin return button, since the phone is ringing and no one is picking up.
It’s only a brief panic. Eventually I see that Mum is walking along the tideline, beach-combing. When I reach her she tips a handful of cat’s-eyes into my shirt pocket. She comes back to the barbecue with me, only stops to pull all the sticks out of the slumped trap and kick the sand back till it’s not a hole, only a hollow, and no one will step into it and hurt themselves.
On New Years Day, 1975, we take all the cars and drive to the river, in our togs, and with our bathroom bags, to wash. I go upstream of everyone so that I can rinse in the cleanest water. And that’s how come I can look up now to follow my floating lather and see them all, in the river and on the riverbank, everyone washing, except the kids, who are swimming but who will stay in longer and be clean enough. There they all are, still, the three families, downstream.
Elizabeth Knox published two novels in 2013: Wake (VUP) for adults and Mortal Fire (Gecko and Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which has been shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature.