Tuck White was 26 when his mother decided to host Marta Young at their home in Wainui. It was the summer of 1942, hot and dry. Hay had been baled ready to put away for the winter. Lambs moved up to the flat plains of Canterbury to fatten. The fishing had been good; dried cod hung in the pantry and for Tuck, a beekeeper, it had been a productive season.
With the money he’d made, he took his fiancé Jenny Evans to Ballantynes to buy a dress. He wanted her to look nice for Marta’s visit. They travelled to Christchurch in his work truck.
‘Oh no, the seat’s sticky.’ Jenny pushed her hands underneath her thighs. ‘Wind the window up, Tuck. We’re being followed by bees. Wind the window down, Tuck. I’m boiling.’
Tuck just laughed, and when she tried on the simple, yellow cotton dress he thought she’d never looked more beautiful. He’d tried to sneak a kiss in the changing room. ‘Come on Jen, just a quick peck.’ She blushed and pushed him through the curtain, into the arms of the humourless saleswoman, who would have said more if she hadn’t had a mouth full of pins.
They travelled home in the dark, windows open, jolting over the ruts and runaways, headlights picking out rabbits and possums in the still night. They drove without speaking, even if conversation had been possible over the clatter of the engine. Jenny’s dress, wrapped in brown paper and string, sat between them. Tuck had some news for her. He wondered when the best time would be to tell her.
He didn’t know much about Marta Young. He knew she was a painter and she came to Wainui often, to visit a friend.
His mother had invited her because It was the right thing to do. She said that Marta was planning to paint a series of watercolours of Wainui, and she may like to paint one from their garden. ‘Wouldn’t that be exciting?’
Tuck just shrugged. He wasn’t sure that watching someone paint was that exciting but his mother seemed pleased.
‘And don’t bring up the war,’ his mother said. ‘She’s a pacifist.’ She raised her eyebrows and kept them raised. ‘Everyone is entitled to their opinion.’
It was decided lunch would be most suitable. ‘Marta suffers with her nerves,’ said his mother, and an afternoon of tennis, croquet and light refreshment would be less exacting than a formal dinner. She also invited the doctor Ulrich Janssen and his wife, and would have invited Tom Bailey the headmaster at Wainui School. Unfortunately, he was serving in North Africa. It was a shame, she said, because he was also an artist and played the piano beautifully.
Tuck spent the morning mowing, rolling and marking out the tennis court, determined to get good use out of it. He played tennis with the same passion he showed for life, contesting every point, disputing every call. Work hard, play hard, smile while you’re doing it was his father’s mantra, and Tuck listened. He was a handsome boy, big-boned and upright, a mop of black curly hair oiled back behind his ears.
‘Give us a hand, Dad,’ Tuck shouted.
Foster White was reading the paper in a deck chair, overlooking the court. He could be counted on to avoid any physical work, but he loved his son and relished any opportunity to spend time with him. ‘Come on then,’ he grabbed the handle of the heavy roller.
They worked together for an hour. Foster, red-cheeked and sweating.
Tuck laughed, ‘You need to lose some weight.’
His dad cuffed him round the back of his head and went back to his paper.
Jenny arrived in her new dress. Foster whistled, and she covered her face with her hands. Tuck held her arm out and made her twirl, causing the hem to rise above her knees. She laughed, strapped herself into an apron and walked off toward the kitchen.
‘She’s lovely,’ said Foster, running his hand over his son’s beefy shoulder.
‘She is,’ said Tuck, following her progress. He watched her scramble up the bank and wondered if today was the day he’d tell her.
At one o’clock, a red open-topped MG crunched on the gravel drive. Marta Young and her friend fell out, laughing. She was slim and angular, high cheekbones, shoulder-length red hair. She wore a green cotton dress and an orange scarf tied round her head. Tuck watched her as she walked onto the deck. Like a rare bird, he thought. His mother flapped, seating Marta out of the breeze, covering her knees with a rug. Foster made her laugh and lit her cigarette. She smiled easily and made it clear she was not to be fussed over. Tuck was unsure of how to behave around her. Jenny poured Marta a Pimm’s and lemonade and said how much she admired her work. Tuck wasn’t sure Jenny had ever seen any of her work.
Marta told Jenny how much she liked her dress, how pretty she looked. Tuck thought Jenny looked different beside Marta. The dress looked too small for her now, her bare feet too large, too pale.
Tuck listened while his parents talked about art, a subject they knew little of, but they were keen to engage with their guest and make her feel comfortable.
Marta nodded politely. ‘And how do you feel about the war?’ she looked at Tuck with her clever green eyes. Tuck looked at his grass-stained tennis shoes, swept his hair away from his face.
‘We must all do our bit,’ said Foster, slapping his son on the back, topping up Marta’s glass.
‘Tom Bailey is serving,’ said Tuck, holding Marta’s gaze. ‘He was my headmaster.’
Tuck’s mother smiled and nodded. ‘He sends us letters about the war. He doesn’t pretend it’s a picnic, but he says it’s important we protect our freedom.’
Marta blew out a long plume of smoke and stubbed her cigarette into the ashtray.
‘Do you play tennis, Ms Young?’ asked Tuck.
Marta shook her head.
‘Do you like bees?’
Her face cracked into a smile. ‘I love bees,’ she said.
‘What are they doing?’ she asked, sitting next to Tuck, cross-legged on the grass.
‘It’s called bearding,’ he said. The bees were congregated in a thick even layer on the outside of the hives. ‘They’re cooling the hive. They remove their body heat from the interior and fan the exterior to try and keep the brood at a constant temperature.’
‘And what about these little chaps?’ asked Marta, pointing to a small cluster of bees at the entrance to a hive.
Tuck laughed. ‘It’s called the waggle dance,’ he said. ‘They’re communicating where the food source is. They collect the information from the incoming bees and then tell the bees who are leaving where the best spots are.’
Marta raised her eyebrows.
‘And they’re girls,’ said Tuck. ‘Not chaps. Beehives are matriarchal.’
Marta clapped her hands and laughed. ‘No wonder they’re so well organised,’ she said.
It was Tuck’s turn to laugh. ‘Everything they do is for the common good. they sacrifice themselves for the common good.’
Marta made an Ahh shape with her mouth and lit another cigarette. The sun was directly overhead. She put her head back and let the heat warm her pale face. Tuck noticed the crow’s feet gathered at the corners of her eyes and the lines that bunched around her lips when she drew on her cigarette. He pictured Jenny’s face. He should have invited her even though he knew she wouldn’t have come.
Marta tapped ash into her palm. ‘Is that what you believe in?’ she said, resting her chin on her arm.
‘I believe we have a right to be free,’ he said.
The bees filled the air with a gentle hum, the only noise other than the breeze. A small army of workers hauled pollen sacks bearing the fruit of a morning’s labour.
‘You look free to me,’ she said. ‘Shall we go for a drive?’ She put her hands on her knees and got up in a single movement. Tuck followed, scrabbling to his feet.
They drove down to the beach. Marta laughed when her dress stuck to the seat. She wiped her fingers across the dash and pretended to lick the honey. She looked younger when she laughed, he thought. The fields were brown and parched. The water shimmered in front of them. They pulled in front of the old jetty, ropes coiled in heaps.
‘Like old-fashioned beehives,’ said Marta.
‘Skeps,’ said Tuck.
She smiled and picked the hair from the corner of her mouth.
The schoolhouse where Tuck had been taught was behind them, a simple weatherboard building that never housed more than a dozen children.
‘You don’t have to go, you know.’ She threw her shoes in the tray of his truck. He noticed her feet were small and neat, the nails painted bright red. She picked her way through the gravel on tiptoe and then they walked down the flat board of the wooden jetty. The wind caught her hair, and she tucked it inside her scarf. They rested at the end, 50 yards out into the harbour. The tide was in, and they sat with their feet in the water. Tuck didn’t know what to say. It was just expected.
Colossal blooms of krill coloured the water pink. A group of petrels picked at something a few hundred yards off the beach.
‘Baby seal,’ said Tuck, glad for a reason to break the silence. He pointed to the large ungainly birds, and they sat and watched as the dead pup floated closer, the petrels oblivious to them as they slowly dismantled its tiny body. Tuck slapped the soft water with his toes. Marta sat next to him.
The hills on the opposite side of the harbour began to change, shadows picking out the rolling gullies. Marta hugged her knees and turned to him.
‘Life is a precious gift, Tuck. No one has the right to take it away.’
Tuck looked at her. She held her hair away from her eyes. She wasn’t pretty, but perhaps beautiful. He fished around in his jacket pocket. The wind picked up and white caps appeared across the water. He took out a dog-eared, buff-coloured envelope, a portcullis stamped in the corner, and handed it to Marta. She glanced at it and turned away.
‘And what if you don’t come back?’ she said. ‘What about Jenny?’
Tuck shrugged his large shoulders. ‘She doesn’t know,’ he said. ‘You’re the only one who knows.’ And he realised he was glad Jenny didn’t know. Glad he only shared this secret with Marta.
She pulled her cardigan around her shoulders.
‘You’re too young, Tuck. Your whole life is ahead of you.’
‘And what would I say to Tom?’ he said. ‘How would I explain it to my dad? I’ve never been anywhere Marta. I’ve never even been to the North Island.’
She arched her thin eyebrows. ‘I don’t want you to die. This isn’t a boy’s own adventure. Come on, let’s walk.’
They walked up past the school, sticking to a narrow track that wound up to the top of the hill. The paddock was dotted with hay ricks drying in the sun. They could see out to the heads and beyond to the vast Southern Ocean. Swell broke on the rocks at the base of the cliffs, and cormorants circled their nesting sites. Cloud appeared on the opposite hill and drifted over the ridgeline hugging the contours of the land. Tuck told Marta about his school days. He was sweating by the time they reached the top, his hair stuck to his face and his shirt damp, clinging to his chest. A slight chill detectable in the freshening breeze. He draped his jacket over Marta’s shoulders, their fingers touched as she pulled it around her.
‘As a beekeeper you’re a primary producer,’ she said. ‘You could seek an exemption.’
Tuck was leaning on a gate. He put his head down and shook it. ‘Serving my country is more important than producing honey.’
She looked away towards the heads. The wind caught her scarf, and it wrapped around Tuck’s face. He could smell her perfume.
‘We should get back,’ she said. And they ran down the hill, past the school to the truck.
Marta and her friend were good company, they teased Foster and helped Tuck’s mother with the dirty plates.
‘I’ll wash up,’ said Marta, and she stacked the plates into a pile. Tuck’s mother and Jenny moved as one, pulled the plates from her grasp and guided her back to her seat.
‘You’ll do nothing of the sort,’ his mother said. ‘Thank you, all the same.’
Ulrich Janssen spoke German, and Marta’s friend replied in kind. She’d learned the language on an extended trip to Munich, she explained.
‘I studied at the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts.’ She said she liked Germany, liked the people. ‘Just people, like us,’ she said.
Tuck laughed loudly, unsure of himself and then stopped suddenly. He looked at Ulrich, who winked.
Jenny was mostly silent.
After lunch, Foster carried the gramophone out onto the deck. He wound the handle and put on a scratched 78.
‘Do you like to dance, Ms Young?’ said Tuck. He held out his hand and they walked down to the tennis court. She kicked off her shoes and they danced barefoot on the dewy grass. Tuck put his hand around her waist and she threw her head back, laughed at his jokes. The Janssens waltzed beside them. Foster took his wife’s hand and she followed him onto the tennis court.
Jenny looked on. After a short time, she put on her apron and went back to the kitchen.
‘When will you tell them?’ whispered Marta, as she swung her ankles into the MG. Tuck held the door open. Her friend revved the engine and thanked the Whites profusely for their hospitality.
‘I’ll tell them now,’ he said. She kissed the tips of her fingers and pressed them to his chin leaving a faint trace of lipstick.
‘Look after yourself Mr Tuck,’ she said. ‘I’ve had a lovely day.’ The car took off, the rear tyres spitting gravel. Tuck heard the radio switch on as the car turned onto the dirt road.
It took a while for Ulrich and his wife to get going. He liked to drink wine, and she liked to talk in her heavily accented English. She talked about Europe, the places they’d visited. The places they’d like to go back to. She didn’t mention the war, what would be left.
‘I didn’t know he was German,’ said Tuck, as the Janssens pulled out of the drive.
‘Swedish,’ said Foster. He clapped his son on the back. ‘And would it matter if he were?’
Tuck shook his head. He put his arm around his father. ‘No, it wouldn’t.’
He sat with Jenny and his parents on the deck, watched the setting sun turn the hills golden as if dipped in honey. He produced the buff envelope and put it on the table next to the lamb sandwiches.
The table fell silent.
‘Marta says I could apply for an exemption, as a primary producer.’
Jenny’s eyes were wide. She stared at him. Removed her apron and threw it on the table.
‘She knows?’ she said.
Tuck nodded, looked at his father, who dropped his eyes and shook his head. Jenny ran back inside.
Foster put his soft hand on Tuck’s arm. ‘I’m proud of you son,’ he said.
His mother put her arms around him. Pushed her head into his neck. He felt the warmth of her tears on his cheek. ‘King and country,’ she whispered.