little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: water

Following the creek

The reporter and I tracked the Lindsay yesterday. It’s an elusive little creek, disappearing behind houses and slicing under roads. The lower reaches are concreted and, well, kinda grotty, but it gets more open and burbly as you walk up it. We even saw riflemen flitting in the trees at one point! Featuring dorky photos and urban weeds.

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Mothers’ day song


This year’s Mothers’ Day post comes with a theme tune, lists and links. It was that kind of day.

Previous instalments
Non-ideal, but better than expected
Much improved

Rough timetable
5.30am: Wake to smoke alarm. No smoke, but alarm has to be dismantled to get it to stop. It’s on the hall ceiling, so the dismantling involves two children waking, a stool on top of a chair, and Ian’s long limbs. Awesome.

After that: Not much sleep.

Later: Rabbit comes in. Ian goes to make breakfast. Rabbit stays in bed to “keep mama warm”.

7.30am: Croissants and coffee in bed. Also, children in the bed. Cards and flowers. Lots of cuddles. Not too many crumbs.

Too much of the morning: Getting organised and doing stuff.

11am: Gorgeous outing to Pūrākaunui to collect cockles on a wide-open mudflat. Birds everywhere, and the water coming in.

20160508_141624_resized1pm: A feast of pasta, homemade tomato sauce and steamed cockles.

Afternoon: Idle parenting by the fire, chores, digesting.

6pm: Probably the last BBQ of the season.

Evening: A deep, hot bath. Bed.

Overall rating: One of the best.



And a tent my shelter shall be

We went camping! In tents and everything! Like real Kiwis!

The PTA at the boys’ school co-ordinates a family camp at the start of every year. The set-up is a piece of organisational genius — the location is the campground at Naseby and any family that wants to go sorts out their own accommodation, food, etc, but we’re all there together, so the kids spend the whole weekend outside playing and the adults enjoy a mix of walking and biking activity and sitting under the trees chatting.

We bought a small tent for the boys and borrowed a slightly larger one for ourselves (thanks, Nona!), Dad’s truck got us and our gear there then turned into a food pantry and kitchen bench, and my Great-Aunty Nan’s folding table and chairs served us well at mealtimes. We cooked on the little Trangia that Ian’s parents bought us 20-odd years ago, and the weather was still and hot. Some basic logistics appealed to my city-girl soul: our coffee pot, hot showers, a kitchen for doing dishes, the table and chairs, a couple of lamps.

The boys spent hours with their friends — the Cat’s gang played ball tag and hid out reading their books and having boy chats, while the Rabbit’s lot roamed around digging things, finding pine cones and rusty chains, racing their bikes up and down the drive, getting filthy and popping back to the parentals when they needed a hug, a bandaid or some food. On Saturday, everyone spent the afternoon at the swimming dam, sinking into the soft green water, mucking around in inflatable boats, wilting in the sun, retreating to the trees, falling in, clambering out, dripping and drying and floating through the day together.

I like a bare, grubby life; I like to wash it off. The wilderness retreats fast when you return to the city, home, chores, work, school. But it’s never that far away.

On the island

Rakiura | Stewart Island is one of my homing spots. My family has been coming here for many years; slipping into the bay on the ferry — the boats, curved beaches, quiet bush all around — always makes me feel like dropping anchor and staying put for the rest of my days.

The proportions are right here — lots of birds, few people, fewer roads, more boats, and everywhere the water and the trees. We walk everywhere, avoid screens, sift through our memories and dream of new beginnings. We take turns cooking and test relationships with epic games of Monopoly. The Cat rejoices in the birds, the Rabbit and little Squirrel get sand everywhere, an uncle builds boats, an aunt reads stories and gives cuddles, a grandfather lends a gentle hand, and we walk through the rain and the sun and the grey and blue and green of it all,  not talking much, just taking it all in, breathing it all out.

We are also fairly silly, as you will see.

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Summer of the little red pen, Part 1

P1070964The story of my summer could be told by rendering the tables I worked at. I had a proofreading job, a biography dense with carefully harvested details, a picking up of the surface of a man’s life, fragment after fragment after fragment, to slowly reveal the soul beneath. I was irritated a lot of the time, sometimes amused, glancingly charmed. There was a quote at the end so lovely and apt I cried and forgave all.

A man! A competent man! was the subject’s frequent cry. Find a man and he can sort everything out, untangle, organise, catalogue, guide. The irony bit deep — look around the publishing team and you’ll see mostly women cranking this thing into shape, chipping, shaping, squaring and burnishing until the light refracts in lean, arrowed lines. I snarked, moved on.

P1070930I started in Wellington, in a small apartment at the top of a villa on the edge of a terrace. Every day we climbed up and down the hillside, dropping into town for outings and supplies, goat-tripping back up when it was time to go home.

We kept the windows open, and the boys made a hut in the living room every morning. We battled over the tv and ate gelati and found our way to the water.

It was almost Greek, but not — too grey, humid, careworn. The wind was always there, ruffling, blustering, making me grumpy. Clearly I still have feelings to work through where Wellington is concerned. I had a revelation about this last weekend, as it turns out. The water is the wrong colour, too much rock, not enough mud. Does it need to be said that all this is just my shit and I fully tautoko all you Wellington lovers?

Anyway… Ian worked early every morning — in the studio at 5, on the air at 7 — and every second evening. I worked when he came home, sitting at a desk on the landing, a tall window to my left, or at the kitchen table, with the buildings and the harbour and the hills to my right.

The Cat remastered the transport system and the Rabbit went a little wild. We ate Japanese, and I got my hair cut. The fruit was dire. I missed the light, the gentle, still warmth, the dark stone of home. Near the end, I softened a little; the bush and the absolutely positivity won me round. We saw old friends, heard each other’s stories. Our hearts were open, and full.

IMGP4909We had a couple of nights at home, then a long day’s travel to Adelaide. It was an extended family thing, Ian’s side, three generations in two houses near the beach, children scattering and knotting in small, shifting clusters. I spent long days in a dark room at the back of the house, a makeshift table, a lamp on the paper. I drifted in and out of the kitchen, grazed on fruit, cuddled my boys in brief, distracted moments. In the evenings we ate together, drank wine. We slept well on firm single beds, the boys peaceful in the quiet and the dark.

IMGP4927There was something of the monastic about it all, and on the last day the tumbling joy of the sea. The Cat and I took boogie boards out together, launched ourselves into waves, grinned and egged each other on, sun hot on our skin. When I got into the shower, my body was covered with leaves and seaweed. I washed it away, but the happiness stayed.

We came home, and our house felt like an old friend. The Rabbit went back to day care, and the Cat did a soccer holiday programme. I worked in every gap, through a sleepover and a birthday and too much of too many nights. I used every table in the house — in my office, the bedroom, commandeering in the end half the kitchen table. Ian parented around me, keeping the wheels turning as I wrestled this bastard job to the ground. I got lost in my head, tunnelled deep among the words and the people and the referencing intricacies of the book. I’m not sure how I did; it feels too close. I liked it though, the brain work, the focus.P1070970

I couldn’t work like that all the time, not without more childcare, but it was a good summer and I’m drawn to it, this editing gig. If I have a vocation, it’s here.

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Writing in the rain, part II

I’ve been here before, rain on the roof, a muddle of thoughts in my head. I should put the fire on, the lamps, the music too. Soon I will, but I’ll write a bit first, stir the muddle, sift for one clear thought or two.

Yesterday was such a good day. We all gave the best of ourselves, me, my partner, the children. It was Mothers’ Day*, and it was a happy one. Last Mothers’ Day we were in Paris (yelp!) and it started well, but deteriorated when we took the kids to the Musée d’Orsay: one of them was grumpy, bored, and got lost; the other one wanted to spend an hour looking at a (very attractive) stone owl and nothing else. But, still, we were in Paris, which is so mind-blowing in itself that a bit of kid-drama is just fine. Particularly in retrospect.

Anyway, this Mothers’ Day was at home. Ian and the Cat got up to make me breakfast, and the little Rabbit burrowed his way under the covers for a cuddle. He’s a very good cuddler; he wraps his whole body around you, squeezes, then sort of holds you in an emphatically relaxed way that says “I love you and I want you to feel that and let’s just hang out here and breathe together.” And then he pats the back of your neck. Adorable, so I let go of sleeping in.

Breakfast in bed often worries me — the crumbs, the wriggles — but I think we nailed it on this one. If you need to know, I think the vital ingredients are: trays and small tables, settled children, one adult being willing to sit on rather than in the bed and handle the pouring, spreading and passing, croissants, coffee and hot milk in jugs, orange juice, and a willingness to get up before it all turns to the bad.

IMAG3233And in the afternoon we went to Purakaunui, which must be one of the loveliest places in the world. It’s an inlet over the hill from Port Chalmers, all dinghies, boat sheds and cribs, mud flats and cockles, hills and bush, birds and warm afternoon sun. It has that simple little combination of sounds, too, that makes me so happy: the splash of an oar dipping into water, a child’s voice, bellbirds and oyster catchers, footsteps on a leaf floor.

We walked along the track to the playground, kicked the Cat’s soccer ball, played in the swings, sat on the rocks, took off our shoes to feel the mud and the water. I took some time to myself, thought about my mum, missed her. I thought about other griefs that sharpen on Mothers’ Day, about those for whom the day ramps up feelings of loss or fear or exhaustion. I held my children and my partner, let myself be warm and loved and grateful.

IMAG3240When I got back to the car carrying the Rabbit, Ian said that the Cat was being a Yellow-Eyed Penguin. Sure enough, he was nesting in a flax bush. The Rabbit wanted in too, of course, and there they were, my boys, wedged in together, squawking, protecting their patch.


* We had some discussion on Facebook about the position of that apostrophe, and my preferred style lost the day, but I’ll make a place for it here. I like Mothering Day better anyway; could we switch to that?

I got my eyes open

We’re looking for a house at the moment. We’ve moved a lot, lived in a lot of houses, got to know a few cities. But it’s time to find a house that will hold us for a bit longer, so we’re looking, and dreaming, and hoping.

So far, it’s all a bit depressing. We keep searching for the perfect suburb, the one with the local park and the harbour and the proper bread shop and the florist who sells simple bunches of just-picked flowers and the boutique bookshop and the grocer with little yummy things and boxes and boxes of fresh, ripe, perfect fruit and vegetables. But that suburb doesn’t exist in this otherwise perfectly loveable and liveable city, so we’re always a little bit “is that all there is?”

Anyway, we figure we can compensate with a good garden and vege patch and a woodburner and a sunny, warm, dry house, so we’re looking for those things too, and not finding them either. But there’s something else I’m looking for, just quietly, and I’ll know when I’ve found it. I want a little writing corner — nothing flash, just a window with a tree outside, space for a desk and an armchair, and the rain falling gently on the roof. Then I’ll settle in, call it home.

The rain clock

After three days of rain, during which the mantle clock had stuck firm at twelve minutes past five, Henry took the clock down to the basement, laid it on its front, and removed the back panel. Inside the casing, metal lay in intricate order — grace embedded in every coil and spring, in the tiny hammer, and the round-headed pins. Henry hesitated, gently removed one coil, and then another.

The basement was cool and still, the brickwork buffering the noise from the house and the insistent drumming of the rain. Henry’s workbench ran along one wall, beneath a window blurred with dust. He kept the workbench tidy, his tools neatly packed away, and odds and ends — nails, screws, tacks, bolts — sorted into small jars, which he kept in a grided shelf to the left of the window. He had a CD player down there, and sometimes played music as he worked, but today he was content with the quiet of empty space, its outer edges softly frayed with children’s voices, the distant hum of the dryer, rain.

There was a tap at the door, and Meg poked her head around. “It’s bedlam up there,” she said. “What are you doing?” Henry started, took a step back. Meg edged into the basement and joined him at the workbench. Together, they looked at the clock, its body empty and its parts scattered on the bench, as mute and indecipherable as fossil bones. “Huh,” said Meg. “Do you know how that all fits back together?” Henry contemplated the wreckage of the clock, felt a ball of panic and shame rise in his chest. Upstairs something thudded to the floor, followed by a moment of silence. Henry looked at Meg, noted the soft creases starting to form around her mouth and eyes. A child’s voice rose, a loud, shocked cry filled more with outrage than with pain. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” said Meg, and hurried outside. Henry bundled the clock pieces inside the casing and screwed the back on. As he walked towards the kitchen door, he could hear Meg with the children, negotiating the terms of peace, smoothing out their spiky discontent. Henry took a deep breath, pushed the clock to the back of his mind, and joined his family.

On Tuesday, the rain stopped, and Henry took the clock to the repairer, a compact, rumpled man with fine-boned hands. “I thought I’d have a go at fixing it,” he said, “but it didn’t really work. I’m sorry.” The repairer looked at him, measured him with a gaze sharpened from years of coaxing delicate mechanical objects into working order. Henry felt himself grow large and clumsy under the repairer’s gaze, an incompetent fool who knew no better than to blunder into the back of a clock as though it were nothing more complicated than a toaster or a child’s toy.

“Sie sind so schön,” said the repairer. “These old clocks, they are so beautiful.” Henry nodded. “Perhaps next time you will bring it to me first, ja?”

Night songs

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.


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.”


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.


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.

A poem in our talking

I met with a friend today, and we talked, and talked, and talked. Of estuaries and words, of identity and relationships and what it is to make meaning in Treaty work. Of salt water and fresh, of holding true to the murkiness of an unsettled time.

And then I came home and dug out this old poem that I’ve been carrying around for some ten years now. And I think I may finally have finished the damn thing.

Harbour Poem

Down where the water
touches rock
a heron picks
its delicate line
between the blue and grey
of a clean
unfolding day;

dipping into the rhythm
of its withholding walk
with the soft-footed grace
found inside clocks, the held breath
of moonlit hallways, the hesitance
when rain begins;

the hollow as a decision turns
a slow circle
in the curve of an unmade moment.

Ships slip to port
and back, peripheral
as the tide
while you dream of birds
and flight through empty time,
your body shed
for feather and air.

And later

with the day worn on
and everything still unknown
the sea eases
to a washed and lustred green,
as old as the stone you hold
and turn
and turn
and turn
a small anchor in the night.

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