It’s been raining solidly for two days. The yellowing paddocks are soaked. My wipers work hard to clear the windscreen so I can see the road.
It was about here at the crest of the hill that we always stopped. As a child, I knew I had arrived when I glimpsed Bare Island, sunlit and wrapped in turquoise-blue sea.
Today, though, I keep driving because there’s nothing to see. The SUV is so heavy to turn on these wriggly roads, like an army tanker weighed down with a tent, groceries, suitcases and toys.
I swing around on to Waimarama Road, past a cafe that wasn’t here when I last visited. The camp ground has moved. The old one was so obvious, right next to Waimarama campstore, huddled beneath a forest of pine trees.
I slow down and search for a street sign. My eyelids are beginning to droop so I open the window for fresh air.
“Are we there, Mum?’’ Isabella calls from the back. Her sisters stare at a movie on a DVD player with two screens. Bianca’s plaits hang limply beneath headphones. Mia sucks her cuddly, which is turning from pink to grey. I really need to get that off her to wash it.
“Mum will the rain stop? You told us it’s always sunny here,’’ Isabella says.
“It was when we were kids,’’ I say.
Along another road, the faded sign to the new Waimarama camp ground appears out of the mist, faded on an old farm fence next to a blue sign: Taylors Construction.
“What’s Dad doing for his holiday?’’ Isabella asks from the back seat.
I don’t know what to say. She’s only 10. “Dunno, but guess what, we’re here.’’
Rattling over a cattle stop, the campground looks nothing like the photographs on its website. It’s literally a bare, wet paddock with muddy puddles, dotted with a few mismatching small buildings which are presumably showers and toilets.
I don’t even have an umbrella or a rain coat. Once I’ve parked, I fumble in my bag to find the anti-depressant, which I forgot to take this morning. There’s no water in my drink bottle. The pill scrapes my throat, so I wash it down with warm white wine from the food bag on the front seat.
My bare feet sink into the wet grass. The car boot is jammed full of suitcases and bags, and groceries piled into tubs. Somewhere in here there’s a tent, and also a hammer.
“Arrk, arrk, arrk,’’ a seagull cries, swooping near me, hanging in the air expectantly as water drips from the edge of the open boot on to the nape of my neck. In sync, the wind turns and the rain lashes me from behind, soaking my calves and the back of my knees, and I think, I really can’t cry in front of the kids.
There’s the green tent bag tucked in behind Bianca’s pink suitcase, right at the back of the boot. I got to keep the tent when he left, although I wasn’t sure I really wanted it. Our marriage was finally summarised in a list of possessions marked with an S or a J. And of course, the kids, who couldn’t be divided, but they could be shared.
On the ground, getting drenched, the tent bag is jammed. Something is caught in the zip. Isabella holds the hammer, stepping from one foot to another to stay warm in the rain which has now shifted sideways, coming at us straight from the beach.
The zip finally gives. I drag out what I think is the grey ground sheet out of the bag, and spread it out on the soaked dirt, and then a gust of wind comes, lifting it off the site and flipping a corner up.
“Stand on that corner,’’ I yell to Isabella.
I always helped Dad put the tent up here at the old campground when Mum was busy with my sisters, so it’s really no different.
Isabella reaches down and holds the tent flat. We stretch it out, and I find the tent pegs in another bag, and begin sticking one after another in the small holes like a game of Chinese checkers along the tent edge.
There are so many holes, I never realised, and god we are missing two tent pegs. I pull a couple of pegs out near the middle and spread them around the edge of the tent.
Squashed at the bottom of the tent bag, the crumpled tent is fiery red. I flip it out on top of the ground sheet, trying to smooth out the creases as rain pummels my scalp, mud sticking to my knees. Something small and blue dropped out of the tent when I shook it. It’s a single contact lens wrapper. Minus three so it must be his.
I stand up, leaning against the car for a minute. A car drives past, through a puddle, drenching me in muddy rain. Fuck, I say under my breath. Maybe we should wait in the car for the rain to stop, although it’s likely to worsen.
“Mum the DVD battery’s flat!’’ Bianca yells from the back seat.
“Read a book. We won’t be long.’’
The tent poles are colour-coded. I remember on that last trip we read the instructions, and the green one went up the middle, while the red one arched over the top. Or something.
We argued about it, and then the tent lifted in a sudden wind gust, and Mia needed her bottle at the same moment.
“Take the red pole and hold it,’’ I say to Isabella, who flips the pole open so it unfolds, growing to be twice as long as her, waving in her small hand like the Len Lye wind wand on Wellington waterfront.
I winch the green tent pole up the middle of the tent, so the red canvas begins to rise and hold my breath, thinking, was it the red pole up the middle actually? Right now, I could do with his six foot self on the other side to pull the tent up, but Isabella seems to know what I’m thinking, and she drops the red pole and stands across from me. I feed the green pole across to her, and she catches it and the tent begin to rise.
I do the same with the red pole, feeding it across to her, and the tent arches its back, lifting up and spreading out, till it stands on site three like a castle.
“Wow, it’s cool,’’ Isabella says.
“Yes! We did it!’’
“Can we go to the beach now?’’
We can hear the sea, screaming at us to come. I wipe a strand of wet hair off her face, and reach down and kiss her on the cheek. “Thanks honey. Yes, we definitely can.’’
Mia is heavy to carry as we cross the rainy reserve towards the row of Norfolk pines on the ridge. Beyond that, there’s the sea.
By the surf club, the rain pauses, sea breeze clearing the mist to reveal a line of white clouds hanging over the horizon, light streaking through the water like silver fingers. My jandals sink into the wet sand, so I kick them off, hitching Mia higher on my hip.
Sea salt tingles my nostrils. It’s the first time I’ve breathed deeply all day. Bare Island lies in the shimmering sea. This is the vista I hoped to see, to know that I had arrived.
Bianca cartwheels along the beach, leaving handprints etched in the sand. “Is that the island from Fairytopia?’’ Mia asks, pointing to Bare Island, her wet curls scratching my cheek.
My body aches. I collapse down with her on a boulder.
“No, sweet pie. It’s called Bare Island. The Māori call it Motuokura – Crayfish Island.”
“Are there people on it now?’’ Mia says.
“No,’’ I say softly, “but there’s a legend that a beautiful wāhine lives out there and guards a fresh water spring.’
Isabella uncurls her fist to reveal a perfect white shell. “What’s this, Mum?’’
These are the questions she used to ask her father.
“That’s a pipi. When it’s low tide, we’ll dig for those with our feet. We did that as kids. Then you put them in a bucket overnight and they spit the sand out while we’re asleep.’’
“Mum, you’re smiling,’’ Isabella says, handing me the shell. “You keep it Mum.’’
My soaked skirt clings to my bare legs as I scoop bucketfuls of water from the groundsheet near the entrance to the tent. It must be only 6am. My phone is dead so I can’t tell. The sun is only just starting to rise, although the light is dull and grey. The front canopy of the tent hangs low, weighed down by pools of rain, forcing us to bend to get in and out of the tent. Unfortunately, I left the canopy poles behind. Maybe they’re still at Glendhu Bay, or he might have left them somewhere in our garage.
In a few days, he will return from Europe and take the kids on a holiday. I don’t want the kids to remember this as our time together. We haven’t even had a swim in the sea. I really need a sign of what I should do next.
Camping out here as a teen, the distant roar of the ocean crashing on the shoreline lulled me to sleep. For the past three nights, I’ve been woken intermittently by heavy rain pummelling the nylon, thrashing it like an enemy.
I crawl back into the tent, wipe my legs down with a damp towel and swallow a panadol. My head hurts from lack of sleep and the stuffy tent. Even my sleeping bag is damp. I wriggle trying to get comfortable. The kids are stretched out on their airbeds, eyelids fluttering. They look so sweet when they sleep.
I’ll try to get more sleep.
I sleep a bit more, and then later, at the campstore, we’re waiting for our lunch – fish and chips – under the only umbrella, sheltering from the rain which goes on and on and on like a bad dream. Isabella calls me over to the noticeboard.
“Look Mum,’’ she says, pointing. A frayed, soaked piece of paper flaps in the breeze, next to a For Sale notice for a quad bike. There’s a photograph of a cottage nestled in trees. It looks pretty, a bit like the one we rented off the nuns out here when we were kids. If the note is up to date, it seems the bach is for rent right now.
I think of Mum’s words. “Everything is meant to be.’’
I slow to a crawl along Airini Road, which in the 1970s had most of the nicer houses. At Brigid’s old family bach, half a dozen kids shelter from the rain beneath the Norfolk pines. They’ve grown so tall they now shade the grassy verge.
I wonder what Brigid is up to these days. I really should see her.
The last time I stayed at Waimarama, my arms got so sunburned that Mum spent the night rubbing cream over my entire body. A few days later, Brigid picked at my shoulders with her long fingernails, pulling up the edge of a layer of skin and slowly peeling it off, dropping the pieces on to my beach towel.
“I want to go home,’’ Bianca says, pulling me back to the present.
“The sun will come out soon. Promise,’’ I say, trying to make my voice sing.
Isabella stares at her iPad, round eyes unblinking. We’re both shattered from packing up the soaked tent.
Number 49 Airini Road appears on the right, with a Phoenix palm guarding the entrance. My right arm aching, I push the old, creaky farm gate open. I must have pulled a muscle while packing up the wet tent.
“Wow,’’ I say to myself.
Branches laden with vibrant green leaves hang over the driveway, stroking the car roof as I drive in. The hugest pōhutukawa tree I have ever seen blazes with spiky red flowers, near an old oak tree just like one from my childhood garden.
A woman with a swinging blonde bob comes out of the house. She wears a crisp chambray shirt with the collar turned up.
The rain spits so we introduce ourselves beneath the trees. The scent of jasmine is overpowering. An apple tree hangs over the front verandah, branches heavy with tiny red apples. Mum would love this garden.
“I’m Bindi,’’ the woman says. “Come in.’’
I follow her through the living room and into a tiny kitchen.
“The kitchen is fairly basic,’’ she says, opening and slamming cupboards. “I don’t have any list or anything because I don’t usually rent it.’’
“It’s perfect,” I say.
“Good. My ex-husband and I stayed here with the kids every summer, but I don’t spend much time here now. They’ve all grown up.’’
The living room is jammed with puffed couches and mismatching chairs. A mirror hangs on each of the four walls, near old watercolours and prints. Through the sunroom windows, the apple tree hangs like a painting.
Bindi begins plumping pillows while the kids dodge the cramped furniture and make their way to the bedrooms. I feel my face pull into a genuine smile.
“It’s so, so perfect. Thanks.’’
Mum would love it here. She always talked about a house having a good or bad feeling. This one wraps its arms around me and hugs me tight.
Dad’s red car crunches over the gravel. He toots, parking underneath the walnut tree. I wonder how Mum will be. I’ll check first, before I tell the kids they’re here.
Mum’s eyes are shut, her head flopped back against the headrest.
I kiss her soft cheek. “Hi Mum.’’
Her grey-blue eyes are covered in a cloudy film. She stares at me, through me.
“It’s me, Sarah,’’ I whisper, stroking the sleeve of her beige jumper. She turns away, looking at the windscreen.
Mum would hate the clothes Dad’s chosen for her today: a beige jumper and navy slacks, and those old shoes she kept at the back of their wardrobe.
Dad pushes a button, and the disability seat Mum is on swivels out towards me. He pulls a wheelchair out of the boot, flipping it open. Mum is heavy, a dead weight, as we each take a side, lifting her into the chair and dropping her on the seat.
One of her hips is too far up. She slumps on an awkward angle.
“Let’s move her so she’s comfortable,’’ I say.
The rain has stopped, but the ground is muddy, the wheels jamming, spinning, as Dad tries to push his wife towards the house. bite the inside of my lip, trying not to cry.
“Let me,’’ I say, taking the wheelchair handles and pushing hard. I used to do this with a bloody double buggy filled with two kids and sometimes dragging Isabella on a scooter too. I lean my body against the wheelchair and push, and the chair releases from its prison of mud, finally moving.
“Mum, look at this garden.’’ I stop by the apple tree. There’s blood in my mouth, which makes me feel better, strangely.
Mum lifts her head up, and looks at the rosy apple I hold in my hand. “An apple,’’ she says it so quietly I can barely hear her.
“Yes! Mum! Remember we used to go and buy those apples at that orchard when I was little? And you made us apple pie,’’ I say.
But her eyes have blanked over again, and she stares across at a broken fence with a line of old concrete tubs leaning against it. I pull a sprig of jasmine off a plant, sniffing the scent of my childhood.
“Remember jasmine, Mum?’’ I wave the white flowers under her nose.
I curse myself. We’re not supposed to use the word “remember.’’ We’re supposed to delete “remember’’ from our vocabulary. Mum still stares at the old fence, as I push the wheelchair over the path and we join Dad on the verandah.
Bianca throws a stick on the bonfire. “Careful darling,’’ I shout. The fire tries to ignite.
“Lets get some more sticks,’’ Isabella says, her voice disappearing over the roar of the waves. She takes Mia’s hand and the kids disappear into the dark night, scattering over the beach like glow worms. I try to drag the log I sat on earlier towards the fire, but it’s heavier than it looks. A smaller log is further up the bank, so I carry it back.
A flame as big as my index finger flickers on the bonfire. My daughters, lined up like a row of Russian dolls, drop their driftwood and sticks on to it.
Smoke pours out from the pile of wood, stinging my eyes. I take the letter from my jacket pocket. I rip it into tiny bits, dropping it on the bonfire, the pieces fluttering over the flames like a flight of doves. Then I pick up a small log and heave it on top of the bonfire. The flame erupts, devouring the log and the letter I wrote to him, spitting tiny black embers into the sky.
“Stand back,’’ I shout. The fire rises up, roaring. Isabella pulls her sisters back a step.
I face the flames, watching the fire burn, my eyes stinging and running with tears. The fire blazes in one huge orange, fiery ball. The flames die back and the girls hold out sticks of marshmallows hanging over the flames, which wrinkle and curl in the heat.
“Yum,’’ Bianca says. She sucks a marshmallow off her stick.
My marshmallow flickers and glows, like a firework warming up, crackling and burning. It sits above the fire, just on the edge of a flame, then softens around the edges, mesmerising me.
Tears run down my face. I’m not sure if the fire still stings my eyes or if I’m actually crying now. I wipe my face, so the kids don’t see.
I walk across to the other side of the fire, and put my hand in Mia’s sticky one. I’m so glad it’s just us now. I smell jasmine, or is it the sickly smell of marshmallow. What did Bindi say? That she wants to sell her house? Maybe it’s a sign.
The fire roars louder than the ocean, spreading over the burning logs. The last fragments of the letter wrinkle on top, their ashes scattering into the night sky.