Chapter 8 Friends of the Family
Coromandel, New Zealand
Cara’s fierce concentration turned to a beatific smile, like sun coming from behind a cloud. The jib swung wildly round; the loose sail filled with the breeze. George bellowed above the noise of taut canvas and racing water at the prow.
‘Let the wind do the work’, he called. She’d spotted him on the boardwalk at Kennedy’s Bay, buying smoked fish from an elderly Maori man. He was doing some work for a farmer in the hills, but he’d taken a couple of days to come down to fish. For the last two days, she’d been out with him. The boat was much bigger than the one they’d crossed the Hauraki Gulf in, heavier to steer, but faster in the offshore breeze. She loved the contrast between gliding along like a gondola on a Venice canal and the frantic scrabbling to hoist or lower the sails. And she felt closer to Jonie out there on the water, as though she were sailing alongside them.
Ashore in the evening, George taught her the first rule of seamanship — how to secure the vessel to the jetty. He tested her on wet rope that had been sitting in a bucket of ice, then made her unpick frayed knots, tightened beyond her fingers’ strength. When her hands were raw and her nails broken, they moved on to reading charts and weather lore. After dark, George taught her how to find her way by the stars.
‘See those two bright lights up there? They’re the Pointers. Take a line along them this way, and you’ll find the Southern Cross.’
‘Bisect the longest axis of the Cross, and draw that line out till it crosses the line from the Pointers.’
‘That’s true South. Up where you come from, you’ve got the Pole Star. Down here we have to find south with geometry. That’s how the Maori got here. Greatest navigators in the world.
‘I like the stories they tell. I’ve been reading a book.’
‘You should hear them told properly: by a fire, out under the sky, with a bottle of grog.
‘They’re all love stories, I like that. I miss Jonie.’
‘Of course you do. Love doesn’t leave you, you know that.’
’Were you ever in love, George?’
‘Who was she?’
‘Is. You’ll meet her soon enough.’
‘There, that should do you, mate. Just go easy on the clutch for the first few miles. 50 bucks, okay?’ The farmer’s boy with the souped-up Holden was happy enough. It was twice that price at the garage, and this way he avoided having to tell his dad he’d let the sump run dry.
‘Seems odd, you hating cars so much, then spending so much time fixing them,’ George observed.
‘It’s Hobson’s Choice, isn’t it? He’d only dump it in a ditch somewhere and buy another. I just saved the planet the cost of building another one for him to bugger up.’ Cara rolled the spanner like a barman flipping a martini shaker and slipped it into her belt. ‘Right, 50 bucks. What do we need?’
Even though it was overcast, Cara still blinked as she walked out of the store with a roll of fishing line and a pail of bait. George was talking to a woman, Maori, middle-aged, long, thick hair rolling in curls over her shoulders, lines of grey streaking the shining jet. She was broad and muscular under the print dress. Her bare feet seemed to take root as she stood. Cara saw George look back at her, giving a slight twitch of his head in her direction. The woman turned. The first thing Cara noticed was her eyebrows. They made perfect arches over her nut-brown eyes, and her pupils seemed to draw the light into them.
‘Cara!’ the woman called. ‘Come here and say hello. You’ve come a long way, child.’ Cara was momentarily embarrassed to be hailed by a stranger in the middle of the street, but she found herself in a bear hug. The woman’s nose pressed to hers, and she found herself held by the shoulders at arm’s length for what felt like a military inspection, except that there couldn’t be many sergeant majors who wore a hibiscus behind one ear.
‘So this is what Jonie travelled the world to see! You look too skinny, Cara. What you need is a good feed. Kai moana. Tonight, at the house. George, you better get us some good snapper, and see if there are any paua big enough to eat.’ Cara felt herself surrounded by those strong arms and the overpowering smell of flower oils. ‘I know how much she loved you.’
The tears poured down Cara’s cheeks as she buried her face in this woman’s hair. But this time it felt strangely like peace, like a rock pool seeping into the sand on an ebbing tide. When she looked up, she saw her new-found friend was crying too, fat, glistening tears rolling down weathered cheeks.
‘Look at the two of us — like there was nothing but sorrow in the world. You come tonight; we’ll eat and drink and tell each other stories.’ Cara wiped the tears from her face and made a desultory attempt at brushing them from the woman’s hair.
‘I don’t even know your name.’
‘Call me Marie, darling.’
The House, Coromandel
As the evening light raked across the hills, George and Cara bounced along in the battered ute, on winding lanes of rutted gravel over a narrow pass between two hills. Cara longed to ask George about Marie, but she sensed that he was reluctant to talk. He must still love her then, she thought, and whatever had happened between them must be still too raw and painful. She turned instead to look at the scenery.
Millenia of rain and landslides had carved out this landscape. Dense bush curved up the steep hillsides. Suddenly, locked away from the world, was a cluster of homesteads, their roofs glistening in the light of the magic hour of twilight. Each house had a huge water tank beside it. Otherwise, they seemed at once random and entirely homely. One was painted in tones of lilac and aubergine, one was built out of recycled windows, another was a geodesic dome, and one seemed to have been assembled out of driftwood. In the middle grew a spreading pohutukawa, its flowers fallen in a red mist over the grass below, and some kind of gnarled pine with huge cones, where a little girl was clambering.
Patches of vegetables grew between the houses, citrus trees, pots large and small, plastic, terracotta, none of them straight, all of them sporting knots of herbs or a tumble of bright blossoms. They pulled up next to a dusty people carrier, by a house whose cluttered veranda was half hidden by a blousy, overgrown hibiscus bush. In the doorway, Marie was wiping her hands on her apron, beaming broadly.
‘Tena koutou! Did you catch anything good?’ she called from the porch, propping the flyscreen open with her elbow. ‘Any paua?’
‘Tena koe,’ George answered. ‘Just a few. But the snapper were running, and we got a few beauties.’
‘The last one gave up a good fight,’ Cara added, not having the heart to say that her stomach was churning at the betrayal of all her vegan principles. She was ravenous though, after their day’s fishing.
‘Good thing,’ Marie grinned. ‘You can clean them by the back door. Cara, there’s wood in the shed out back. Can you light the big, black kettle barbecue? There’s salad, kumara, and a pie, and we traded some cheese from a co-op over in the next valley. Oh my God, the bread.’ The flyscreen banged behind her, bouncing on its hinges. As Cara started the fire, two luminescent blonde children came and gazed impassively at her, before shrieking as one and running off hand in hand to the knotty pine, climbing up to the little girl already perched in the branches.
From the surrounding houses, people were coming out of their doors and walking towards the barbie, each of them carrying something — a bottle of wine, a basket of fruit, a flagon of beer.
Twelve of them sat round the big outdoor table, not counting the children, who came over when they felt like it to pick at their parents’ plates. They devoured freshly caught fish, huge salads whose leaves smelt of rich earth and clean rain, brimming bowls of golden mashed kumara, and a beautiful round of soft cheese on a plaited straw mat. When they’d finished eating, hurricane lamps and candles cast warm light over the wreckage of the meal.
At the far end of the table, a man in his late 40s or early 50s with greying hair was picking quietly on a guitar. Overhead, a sickle moon was tangled in the branches of the trees. While Cara contemplated her surroundings, Marie had been trying to explain the tangled connections between individuals in the group.
As the home brew kicked in, Marie hesitated, laughing at her memory lapse. ‘Sometimes even I forget. That’s Cliff down there playing the guitar.’ At the mention of his name, the guitarist looked up and acknowledged Cara with a nod while still strumming. He had presence, a charisma that seemed to ooze charm and confidence. Cara barely heard the rest of Marie’s introductions. ‘That’s Ken — he’s a landscaper.’ Ken looked up, raised an eyebrow in greeting, and looked away. It wasn’t exactly welcoming. Clearly not everyone was going to be as friendly as Marie. ‘Janine, Brian… No point trying to remember them all.’
‘Just as well,’ said Cara. ‘This homebrew’s going straight to my head. I’d fail the test. No wonder Jonie loved it here — it’s a wonderful set-up. You have everything you need.’
‘And a few things we just want. Have a go in the spa pool when the weather’s better. We have to use the generator over the winter and the minibus to take stuff in to market, but otherwise Papa and Rangi give us everything we need.’
‘They sure do,’ muttered Brian. ‘When I need new bits for the computer, Papa holds the plane from Korea up in the sky and Rangi keeps the courier rider on the road to the Coromandel.’ Cara recognised the Maori names for the earth mother and sky father but felt that it was going to take a long time to work out the politics of this community.
‘How did Jonie fit into all of this?’
‘She stayed a couple of years, maybe three before she set off to London. Alice still comes by every now and then.’ Jonie had talked about Alice. She sounded pretty earnest. Worked for some charity in Auckland now. Cara supposed she ought to get in touch. But then again, what was the point? Alice had been more of a mentor to Jonie than anything else. It wasn’t as though Alice and Jonie had been in love.
‘Those kumara come from a patch they started. Best patch on the farm. Brought in a load of horse shit.’
‘Took a week to get the stink out of the minibus,’ Cliff called from the far end of the table.
‘We had to hose it down and strip the seats out,’ called a bloke wearing a tee shirt with an Aboriginal motif.
‘Then Brian took one of the springs for his fireworks,’ chipped in the woman with long, dark hair and grey shorts.
‘And set fire to the barn — I know. You guys never let me forget.’ Brian mimed dejection to hoots of laughter.
‘Best fireworks ever,’ said Janine, leaning over and offering him a kiss. Both chairs fell over as he tried to respond.
‘It isn’t rocket science,’ came a chorus of voices, followed by the clinking of glasses against mugs and another roar of laughter.
‘It’s rocket alchemy. Pure magic,’ said Brian as he picked himself up and reached for more beer. ‘No such thing as science anymore. No-one observes anything. Now it’s all automated. Give me hands-on magic any day.’ Cara realised now that this disparate gaggle of dysfunctional weirdos must have been Jonie’s surrogate family. And that she must have fled that miserable bunch of Presbyterians she’d been born into as soon as she was old enough to leave home. Out of all of them, George was the only decent one. He’d told her that when she was 12, Jonie was sent away because she had a crush on the teacher. She asked Marie quietly what had happened.
‘She fell in love with another girl at boarding school. Her uncle George brought her here during the holidays when that mother of hers refused to see her. She saw Sinead O’Connor on the TV and set her sights on London.’
‘She loved that song, Nothing Compares 2 U. But she could never hit the high note. One by one round the table they tried but failed to sing the chorus. .Cliff and Marie joined in, singing falsetto. Everyone's voices cracked. Cara felt the tears flow again across her laughing cheeks. Marie stretched out her free hand to her, and she took it.
‘She was a good girl. Treasure her memory.’