Madeline puts the box down on the table. The front is printed with a portrait of a wide-eyed, golden cat. “It was only $24.99!” she says, excited. The cat on the box has one cartoonish, large paw on its belly and the other is raised and waving.
Sadie tries to smile for her. “It’s cute at least.”
Madeline collects kitsch junk. She cannot resist the beckoning of tchotchkes and faux Bakelite talismans.
“It’s supposed to bring us wealth and prosperity. You put batteries in and it beckons good fortune in your direction.” She starts opening the box. “Do we have any AA batteries around?”
“Check the middle drawer.” Sadie points. It’s filled with junk. Screws, balls of twine—a mug with a broken handle they sometimes put coins in.
Madeline starts rifling through it. Sadie looks back at the box, the cat on the cardboard that is staring at her. She sticks her tongue out at it, then heads out for a smoke.
Madeline is stoked to go meet Sadie’s grandmother. Nanny lives in a small, concrete, two-and-a-half-bedroom flat in Palmerston North. For this visit the two of them take a train, so they can call it a weekend getaway.
Sadie has already met all of Maddy’s family. They were fairly moderate, if not conservative, people—but they were happy that Maddy had met such a lovely girl. Sadie promised Nanny that she would bring Madeline to meet her long ago. The last few times they spoke on the phone Nanny pressured her to make the next trip the one where Madeline visited too—and eventually Sadie was powerless to refuse.
They don’t make it to the flat until dusk. Sadie knows Nanny will be waiting at the kitchen window and watching the driveway; that she probably has been since dawn. Madeline is excited. She has only heard a little about Sadie’s eccentric grandmother. They walk up the concrete path around the back of the house, and there is Nanny with her arms outstretched.
“Hell-ooooo!” She hobbles out of the doorway and pulls Madeline into a hug. Madeline hugs her back, grinning over Nanny’s shoulder at Sadie. Nanny keeps a hold of Madeline but grabs Sadie too, embraces her, and then drags them both into the flat. On the way in Madeline almost forgets to take her shoes off and leave them on the makeshift shelf outside. Inside Nanny asks if they’re hungry, whether they want a biscuit, or some mock crab, an iceblock? She’s almost deaf, so they have to half shout no thanks, we’re good, we ate on the train.
All three of them sit down at the table. It’s covered by two tablecloths—one plain underneath and another lace over the top. The day’s activities cover the table: A Woman’s Day magazine, a cut crystal ashtray, a crossword puzzle book. They talk for about ten minutes before Nanny pulls out her tarot cards, and Madeline’s eyes light up.
At home, in their flat, the cat takes pride of place on the kitchen windowsill. Madeline likes to put her latest acquisitions here. On the windowsill she can watch them while she cooks or does the dishes—to let them acclimate to the household. The lineup, with the addition of the cat, is made up of a small clown doll, a Dutch porcelain man chasing a porcelain goose, and a brass elephant.
Sadie has come to resent the cat. Its wide eyes follow her across the room as she fixes herself a cup of tea. She doesn’t look away from it as she takes a teabag out of the tin, puts it in the cup, sets the electric jug on to boil. Usually the hot water, the steam, comforts her. She takes her tea out to the porch, watches the sky. It gets dark.
An orange light comes on behind her, Madeline is in the kitchen. Sadie turns to watch her. Madeline’s doing the dishes, and Sadie can’t see her smile for the backlighting. But she can see her raise a sudsy finger to the cat’s golden paw as it high fives her.
Sadie has spent plenty of time feeling ashamed of her Nanny. She’s a little too helpless, a little too Māori; she does and says weird old-people things. She thanks ‘The Lord’ before meals, reads the tarot, and hates Catholics. She used to be an over-the-phone psychic until she got too sick to work. Before that she used to make lingerie for women on their wedding days and wedding nights. She loves Winston Peters, and Deal or No Deal.
Madeline takes to her immediately. Sadie doesn’t feel as angry or ashamed as she used to. Madeline becomes so enthusiastic about their trips to Palmy that eventually Sadie is seeing Nanny on a monthly basis. It’s unbelievable. Her mother can’t understand it—she has picked up her life and moved it down south to the city, and away from her backwards family. Since Maddy and Sadie have been visiting Nanny has learned to cook a few vegetarian dishes and toned down her xenophobic tirades. She gets sicker, though. Slower and quieter.
One day Sadie brings home brochures. Maddy starts crying. Nanny should have sold her house a long time ago. She’s lived by herself for years. Poppa died first, so she just had the cat to keep her company—and then the cat died a few years later, and she refused to get another one. There were days when she didn’t see anyone at all.
“You know it’s gotta happen eh, Maddie?”
Madeline sniffles and nods.
“It’ll be okay, we’ll find the best place. Maybe she’d even like to move down here!” Sadie knows this is unlikely – Nanny has lived in Palmy for fifty years. She is set in her life there.
Madeline picks up a brochure and starts reading. Sadie has already flicked through them on the bus ride home.
“This one looks nice.” It is a little ranch style complex. There are plenty of old, large trees, dappled light, bountiful gardens of cottage flowers.
They go to bed early that night. The next time they call Nanny to arrange a visit Madeline clutches the pamphlets close in shaking hands.
It takes months to get the old woman to agree. She’s wily and finds ways to slip out of difficult conversations, but Sadie perseveres. She relents on the condition that Madeline and Sadie take her precious things—and keep them for her future mokopuna and their children. Sadie raises her eyebrows but agrees. Nanny doesn’t need to know her and Maddy haven’t talked about kids. They pack the house for her. This means they stay for the week, but they both manage to get time off work so it’s okay.
“I didn’t realise how full her house was,” Madeline says. She’s bubble wrapping faux gold figurines of ancient Egyptian icons—a slinky black cat with thick, gold hoop earrings, Bastet disappears into plastic wrapping.
“Yeah, she’s gone for it all these years.” Sadie is packing a box of small statuettes. One is a prowling wolf, the other is a purple dragon.
“It’s a shame this is all going in storage, they should be out for everyone to see.” Madeline is turning a golden scarab over in her hand.
“None of its going into storage. It’s all going to Vinnies,” Sadie sighs. She is tired, and over packing all the junk around them.
Madeline frowns. “We promised to take care of it.”
“Nanny doesn’t have to know. She’ll have forgotten about it in a week or two.”
Madeline’s face begins to scrunch up. “She’s your Nanny. You promised.”
“And we’re taking care of it, aren’t we? Someone else will buy it and look after it.”
“You’re being a little cold, Sadie.”
“I’m just trying to be realistic. She can’t really believe we were going to take all this home, to our tiny flat.”
Madeline doesn’t say anything, just keeps wrapping.
“It’s not our problem, Maddie.” Sadie doesn’t get a reply. She lets out a heavy breath then goes outside for a cigarette.
Sadie comes back inside and Madeline is on the floor, surrounded by the detritus of Nanny’s life. Treasures, useless, every single one of them. Madeline looks like she’s had a bit of a cry. She’s holding a little porcelain fairy—it’s wearing a dress made of pink flower petals. Its mariposa wings are dusted with a garish, iridescent glitter-glue.
“Hey.” Sadie says.
“Hey,” Madeline replies. She’s stroking the fairy’s pale arm.
“I’m sorry about before.”
“It’s okay. I know we couldn’t really take it all home.”
“I’m still sorry though. I shouldn’t have lied to Nanny like that.”
Madeline just nods, looking down at the ground. Sadie gives in. “If Nanny wants to pay for a storage locker with the money she gets from selling the house then we can keep the stuff.”
Madeline keeps nodding.
That night Nanny makes Yorkshire pudding for dinner. She uses a can of beans instead of mince and it’s not too terrible. Madeline is quiet all night.
They find a unit for all of the stuff in the city. It’s close enough that they can come and check on it anytime they like. Getting everything into the locker is quicker than Sadie anticipates. The storage complex is warm and dry. The air smells like nothing. It feels like what Sadie imagines space is like. Light and sound travel differently, and everything is still. Madeline lifts the last box and stacks it lovingly atop the others. They admire the tall, even stacks for a moment, then head back to the car.
“Oh shoot.” Madeline is checking the boot. She holds up a little bubble wrapped package. “It must’ve fallen out when we repacked that big box.”
“Should we take it back to the locker?”
Madeline looks down at the little object in her hand. “Yeah. I guess so.”
Sadie feels a twinge of something. She’s not sure what. “I suppose we could just keep one thing.” As soon as she says it Sadie is regretful, but the regret falls away quickly.
“I’d like that.”
“C’mere, then. Let’s get going.”
Sadie pats the passenger side seat as she puts the key in the ignition. Madeline skips around the side of the car, gets in, slams the door closed behind her. The small bubble wrapped thing is on her lap. She does up her seatbelt.
“You can open it up, you know,” Sadie says, starting the car.
Madeline is quiet for a moment, then starts tearing at the wrapping. Inside is a small wooden beaver. It fits easily in the palm of Madeline’s hand. The sides of its body are smooth and worn. Sadie stares out the windshield pointedly as she drives.
Madeline holds onto the beaver whole ride home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall (Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, W̱SÁNEĆ First Nation) is a takatāpui multimedia artist and writer. Her work concerns the body, inter-generational trauma, and indigenous alienation/dispossession/reclamation. She lives on the Kāpiti Coast with her husband and two cats.