Night songs

by little red pen

Beth woke early, sunlight fingering through the curtains. She curled back towards sleep, burrowing deeper into the eiderdown and letting her body settle in the warmth.

Slowly, her thoughts drifted towards the day, the ferry coming in the afternoon, the preparations to be made. She felt rusty, unsure of how to stretch into the shape required of her. She felt — of all things — like a hermit crab, naked on the sea floor, searching for a shell to fit her as grandmother, as host. She uncoiled, easing her legs straight under the covers, shuffling up onto her elbows, then swung her legs out of the bed, feeling for her slippers with her feet. With a soft grunt, she stood, reached down the old dressing gown from behind the door.

In the kitchen, Beth struck a match, lit the fire she had set the night before. The kindling cracked and sparked, the flames bright in the dark range. She shovelled on some coal and filled the kettle, placed it on the hob.

Out on the verandah, she cradled a cup of tea in her hand, a bowl of porridge beside her. A bellbird sang from the rata, and the boats in the bay looked shapely, perfectly formed in the morning light.

Beth dressed quickly, shrugging on an old hand-knit jersey and some tweedy slacks. Time enough to tidy up later, she thought. Sally wouldn’t mind her being a bit rough around the edges — but then there was the other one to think of. Beth picked up the fishing rod, bucket and basket from the laundry, pulled on her boots, and headed to the rocks.

She found her usual spot, half-hidden by the bush that crept down to the water and offering a flat slab that was first a seat, then a gutting station. By mid-morning, she had caught three fat cod, her hands swift and tender as she brained them, split their bellies, tossed the guts to the waiting gulls. She wrapped the fish in newspaper, laid them in the basket.

Shouldering her gear and clambering back to the track, she remembered Sally’s voice on the phone. “I’m coming over on Saturday, Gran, maybe stay a few nights.” A slight pause, then, “I think I might bring a friend.” They’d talked about exams after that, the weather, who was new to the island, and who had left. Before hanging up, Sally paused again. “It’ll be good to see you, Gran,” she said.

So, thought Beth, three fish then, and two beds to make up in the little spare room at the front of the house. She hoped no-one had turned vegetarian without telling her.

After lunch, Beth walked around the house, checking its readiness. She breathed in the linseed oil deep in the old wood, rearranged the daisies in the yellow jug on the dresser. She laid the table with the green cloth, its embroidered flowers faded from countless washings. Before leaving the house, Beth scrubbed potatoes, pricked them, put them in the range.

On the way down to the wharf, Beth stopped at the store. Some little treat, she thought, something that young people would like. It was hard to choose, what with Pat and Nancy offering advice, and trying not to squint too hard at the labels. Eventually she selected thin crackers, a cream cheese, a small jar of olives. “Expecting visitors today, Mrs Patterson?” asked Maureen at the counter. “My granddaughter,” said Beth, suddenly shy in the curious quiet that fell on the front of the store. “Little Sally?” said Maureen, “haven’t seen her for a while.” “Probably not so little now,” muttered Pat, as he collected his bread, milk and paper. “Put it on the tab, love,” he said, as he loped out the door.

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When the boat came in, Beth was waiting on the wharf, scanning the arrivals with an islander’s sidelong glance. It took her a minute to recognise Sally, the long legs striding through the crowd, her hair shorn close to her head.

They hugged, and Beth ran her hand carefully over the soft stubble. It prickled lightly under her fingers, and she remembered sitting in the old leather chair by the fire, Sally’s loose red-gold curls glinting in the firelight. She’d run her hands through the tangle of hair, stroking the delicate skull underneath.

And then she remembered further back, to the day Meg had called from the mainland and told her to come and meet her granddaughter. Beth had crossed in rough weather, the boat pitching on the waves and rain spattering the windows. She’d hitched a ride to the city — you could do that then — and been dropped at the hospital. When she walked into the room, Meg was alone, sitting by the window with a small, white-wrapped bundle in her arms. Beth kissed her, pleased to see the clear light in her eyes, the calm set of her mouth. “I brought you apples from the old tree,” she said, suddenly wondering if they should be books or clothes for the baby. Nappies, even. “Lovely,” said Meg, taking the wrinkled brown bag, selecting a small, garnet-coloured apple. “Swap you for a baby,” and she laid the bundle in Beth’s arms.

Beth turned the baby towards her, and took in the pale skin, the wide mouth, the flagrant riffle of red hair on her scalp. “You didn’t tell me we had orangutan in the family line, Mum,” said Meg, her mouth full of apple. The baby opened long, creased eyelids, looked at Beth, and yawned. Beth turned away from Meg a little, and cleared her throat. “Just be glad she didn’t pick the hippo card,” she said.

On the wharf, Beth stepped back from Sally and looked into her face. The short hair made her look younger, her face open and clean, her eyes and mouth generous. “She’s got a nicely shaped head,” said a voice to Beth’s right, and she turned to see a young woman standing beside her. This woman’s hair was long and dark, bunched into a rough ponytail at the back of her head. Her skin was warm and tawny, her eyes the green-brown of drifting seaweed. “This is Keri, Gran,” said Sally. “Hello, Keri,” said Beth. “Sally’s head has always been well-shaped.”

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Back at the house, Beth unpacked her purchases, hunting out Aunty Elsie’s platter for the crackers and muttering about the need for something to eat after the boat trip. She offered wine, but the girls had brought beer and they opened a bottle each, curled on the sofa, shoes kicked off. Beth didn’t want wine either; her usual whisky would do just fine.

While Beth fried the fish, she sent Sally into the garden to pick a salad. She watched her granddaughter through the window, recognising as her own the long fingers that searched out a few crisp lettuce leaves, the ripest of the tomatoes by the wall. They ate quietly, the cutlery chinking lightly against the plates. They talked a little, let the night settle around the table.

After the girls had gone to bed, Beth refilled her whisky glass and took it out onto the verandah. She sat in the swing chair, her ears tuned to the distant swish of waves on the beach. A morepork flew overhead, its call a slow parabola in the dark. The spare room window was open a crack to catch the breeze, and through it Beth heard the low murmur of Sally and Keri talking. She almost called out to them to hush and go to sleep, but remembered in time that they were no longer eight and high on fifty-cent mixtures from the store. She leaned back in the chair and sipped her whisky.

But as she sat, the murmurs became more urgent, building in a rhythm that first matched the waves, and then passed them. Beth halted the gentle swing of the chair, her foot a sudden anchor on the verandah. She wanted to stand, walk fast out into the night, the bush, the sea, but her legs were granite, heavy and unyielding. Someone called out in a low moan, and Beth gripped the glass tightly in her hand, holding her arm firmly with the other hand to stop it shaking.

And then she heard another sound — Sally breathing out a deep sigh and laughing, warm and relaxed, Keri too, and their laughter twined and tumbled around the room, and out, tendrilling in the night sky — leaves, petals, stems opening in bright colour against the inky sky. Beth slowly lifted her foot, let the chair swing again. She sat there for a long time, quieting to the night, then rose, rinsed her glass, went to bed.

Over the next couple of days, they walked the tracks. Sally wanted to show Keri all the old places, the tightly curving bays, the narrow beaches, the furled and knotted bush. Beth found tiny orchids for them, pale green hoods among the ferns and moss. As they sat on the jetty, a little blue penguin swam beneath them, diving after fish. The night retreated, became a shrug, a faint line of unease wavering across the pale blue china of their days.

On the third evening, Keri brought out her guitar. She sang first in English and then in te reo, her voice low and certain. Beth listened quietly, following the music into the sky and over the bay. And at last she let herself remember Katie, a warm night on the sand, a flagon of sherry wedged between them. She remembered their kiss, Katie’s lips soft and full, her skin with that light scent of soap — and underneath soap, the sea. And she remembered how they’d hugged hard, pulled away from each other, run as fast as they could into husbands and babies, filling their pantries with rows of jams and jellies, from which they chose the most fragrant, the most richly hued to send to each other each Christmas and, for a few years, on birthdays.

She looked at the girls, the water, the moon. How old she felt, and how young.

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On Thursday, Sally and Keri left on the early morning ferry. A flock of storm petrels flanked the boat, arrowing them to the mainland.

Beth turned, and walked back up her hill, to strip the beds, wash the dishes. At the top of the hill she stopped, turned, looked out over the bush and the water. She raised her arms to the sun, grinned at a kaka tearing strips off a tree. A few feathers and I could fly too, my friend. Just a few feathers is all I need.