In those days I would go down to the coach road with Rowan to get the post. I thought it was so strange that a letter would have to go all the way around on the ships to get to me on the station, when Ned was off building the road through. Sometimes when we walked, the clouds were down around our ears and we could hardly see over to the next paddock or across the road to the blackberries on the other side, let alone the mountains. Or we could only see the dark shapes of them behind, not what they were. Other days we could see all of it – elbows and knees of rock poking out from the yellow plateaus, peaks in behind taking charge of it all. If I had time to myself and it wasn’t too muddy, I walked Ned’s stretch of the boundary fence. I liked being in air where he’d been, tapping my hand over one or another pole he’d held or driven in. It was so quiet and empty. The fence posts still held some kind of energy from him, like a tuning fork that had been struck. Or that was me, the fork, and I was struck against him.
Other things reminded me of him, too. Mr Taunton was hiring new farmhands for the shearing around then, and I noticed from the corner of my eye that one of them had the same lean as Ned. He had his hand up to a horse’s flank and he crossed one leg over the other that way I had seen Ned do at the cave, when he was telling me about the waterfall, the Devil’s Punchbowl, and how high it was. At the house, they had a painting of Essex in the hall. Lady Taunton told me they used to hold stock shows there, like those Ned had said he worked in, and I thought of him in the hollering and cattle stink. Coincidences like that made me feel as though he was watching over me. Silly, ain’t it?
When I told Rowan how he’d courted me, the air was buzzing with insects and hot, and I made it all come alive again talking about it, and it was like Rowan could see what I was seeing. I showed him the towels and pillowcases I bought and all – forget-me-nots, so we’d remember when I was there waiting. Rowan asked me things like where were we going to live, and if I didn’t have the exact place I knew instead that the house would be happy and safe because it would be us in it. When I walked to the fence, the caves, even down to the coach road, it was like times I’d been in church, just quiet and thinking, being grateful for some blessings and hoping for others. It made me calm. He made me calm. It seems silly, but sometimes I used to imagine what sort of boy he would have been. Being with him had made me feel for all the wide world as though we’d lived next door when we were children and didn’t know. I sometimes fancied that he could see everything I saw, could see out from behind my eyes.
I used to wonder what people at home would think of New Zealand and life on the run, all the countryside and no people and everything having to be built new. There were none of those castles or standing stones, none of them old crookedy inns. The grandness was in nature, nothing men did. I thought of Ned all the time. Sometimes I thought I’d go over the new road and find him. He’d told me he’d return and I believed he would, but if something happened, how would I know?
He visited my granda’s home for the first time when my granda succumbed – God rest his soul. I was sixteen years in the world at that time and my mother – God rest her soul – was four in the next. Cullen was sent from the auctioneers to discuss granda’s estate. He was a younger man of four and twenty. It was modest, the estate, and his superiors told him to offer one price for all of granda’s chattels, to the relief of my pa, who didn’t know the values of the goods or the workings of such matters. We lived in the Black Country town of Tipton – ‘a plague of smoke’ Mr Dickens had said it.
On the first day Cullen came to my granda’s house, he was just another man of the men in their dark clothing I saw in those days following granda’s death. The parish came out to see granda buried, but I didn’t see any more faces than my brother and uncles, and even the uncles I couldn’t tell one from the other. Hard to see in my mind that town and the factories when I look around here. On the other side of his grave was a wall of black wool and behind that nothing but soot out of the chimneys and where it had fallen on the brick. It wasn’t heaven you looked on in the glow of those furnaces. It was something else. This land is closer to God, but the Devil’s still here in the rivers that take men’s lives and the greed that takes their hearts.
Cullen was just another man I couldn’t tell. Even in our own granda’s house I didn’t hardly look at his face, and why would he have looked at mine? My granda was still settling with the Lord in heaven and it was not for us to be looking past the hands we pray with. Cullen didn’t look at me. Or I didn’t see him if he did. My father said to make tea, so I made it and put it down on the table and they didn’t look up from the papers.
Cullen was back to oversee the men who came for granda’s things. I’d helped father pack everything away. There was only the two chairs for sitting in and the one table for tea. While I was putting the Spode on the tray with the doily the way my mother had shown me, I heard father tell him – ‘Mr Greene’ he was known by then – he told him, ‘Thank you for giving us personal attention.’ He said, ‘So are you large with God, to take such special care?’ Cullen said he wasn’t but he had mind that our granda was and as such deserved respect. When I brought the tea in and put it on the table, father turned his head to look at me. Cullen only looked at the Spode on the tray with the doily.
The Lord gave me a husband and a son. My husband was a man of strong temper, but protected us – himself, our Duncan and me – in the wilderness of New Zealand, so far from home. I don’t like to speak ill of my husband. But Cullen, he wanted to give our Duncan a man’s sense of weight and worry. He sometimes lost his temper on the boy. The boy went off. He went off, and I never knew to where.
I want you to imagine something for me. Let me think. Okay, this is what it was like. Imagine it’s spring, one of those surprising spring days nobody expects. You might be in your home city or away somewhere – visiting friends, travelling for work, whatever. Wherever you are, you turn down a street you haven’t been to before and you see the entrance to a café. Maybe there’s a delicious smell. Maybe there’s an empty table in a sunny spot at the front window. There’s a sort of frame around the place. You’re curious. Even the door is interesting. See yourself walk in. Sit down at a table.
You can’t believe how amazing this place is. The décor is gorgeous, but just unexpected enough to be interesting. It fits all of your tastes and invents new ones. It inspires you. You’re having ideas. You love the music, the menu, and the architecture. It might not be locally owned. It might be run by Algerian or Italian or Japanese owners. It comes with its own culture. It’s like a dream but better, because there are things about it you could never have dreamt up yourself. That something so perfect for you could exist in the world is making you incredibly happy. Remember, you saw this place and walked in. It was your decision.
You linger in the café for the rest of the day. You go back as often as you can after that, and when it comes time to leave, you don’t want to go. You want to tell your friends and family about it, but you don’t straight away because you also want to keep it for yourself. At the same time, you don’t feel threatened by the idea of other people going there, because it hasn’t been so perfectly designed for anyone else, only for you. Other people can never appreciate it like you can.
Gradually, you become aware that by the standards of the outside world you’re spending too much time in your café. You’ve forgotten what was important before you first went there. But you don’t worry, because it’s the best place for you to be. You’re confident about this because of the way it makes you feel. The feeling you have is new. The emotions you carry around with you. Then.
You become aware of one or two niggles. There’s a cold draft. The hand drier in the bathroom doesn’t work. Whatever they are, these things don’t matter in the context of your new discovery. You can live with them or fix them. Whatever. But one day you’re in your café – you think of it as yours now – and you realise something, all of a sudden. You realise that you can’t leave. You’re committed now, and this café is where you live and most of the time that’s okay. But a few of the problems aren’t so minor after all, it turns out. A few of them, one or two, are fundamental. There’s no food, or there’s no heating, and winter is coming.
You adapt. The discovery of the flaws and the adaptations are simultaneous, and the process only entrenches you further. You can’t help feeling ripped off at how the place turned out to be different from what you thought.
How is it different, though? It’s not the details that are important. It’s the how. That’s the worst thing, because if there was anything you couldn’t immediately see, you invented the details yourself. You laid them over what was there.
I did when Rob and I got together, anyway, and looking back now, I can’t remember which bits were real and which bits I made up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Head returned from London at the beginning of 2010 to complete her MA at the IIML. For her folio project she wrote a series of short stories set on the West Coast of the South Island, several of which take place during the gold rushes of the 1860s.