a novel by
Other than known historical persons, all characters are fictitious. Some
liberties have been taken with the inclusion in the story of certain of the
actual French settlers of Akaroa.
Published by Wily Publications Ltd
302 Lake Terrace Road, Christchurch
Copyright © Karen Zelas, 2010
First published 2010
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To read the first five chapters, scroll down.
20th August, 1840.
Ma chère Maman,
How thoughts of you have given me strength by day and sadness by
night, these long months past!
You came to me again last night, little Albert held to your bosom,
Sophie and young Madeleine clutched at your side, Jacques standing
tall at your shoulder. The ship’s deck lurched beneath my feet. Yet you
stood steadfast. The spars groaned. Wind and swirls of icy rain swept
over us. I reached out to you, clambering up the steep incline, but with
every step, you drifted further away, out of my grasp, until you were
beyond the ship’s rail, hovering over the waves, becoming more and
more distant. How my heart ached!
I woke from the dream to the sound of rain drumming on the
makeshift tent fabricated from the sails of our ship. It was still dark.
The canvas creaked as the wind rose and I could hear the unfamiliar
sound of trees bowing and sighing. My husband lay at my side and I
took comfort. I could feel the warmth of his breath on my face and
I breathed deeply. I was not the only one awake. All the families are
in one tent and the single men in another. I could hear Mme Gendrot
gently sobbing nearby and several people coughed a rondelet, still
suffering the effects of Rochefort fever developed on the voyage. What
a voyage, Maman! Not a dream but a nightmare.
We stepped ashore in New Zealand eleven days ago. What a
relief after more than seven months at sea! The “Comte de Paris”
anchored first in a place so beautiful you cannot imagine. They
call it Pigeon Bay for the native pigeons, which are in abundance:
large birds with iridescent red-green feathers over their heads and
shoulders and white puffed chests. The green-black bush tumbles
down the hills right to the very edge of the sea, so very different
from home, and the tops of the mountains are dusted with snow. The
colours are clear and hard, straight from a paintbox. And the birds,
at dawn and evensong, are like bells! Ah, and the smell, Maman – of
earth and trees.
But we had a sad duty to perform at Pigeon Bay. Two little ones
had died only the day before land was sighted. A terrible loss for their
parents, Messrs Gendrot and Chardin, and a great sadness for us all.
The captain’s men dug two tiny graves at the edge of the bush and
the children, wrapped in canvas, were placed one in each and small
wooden crosses erected. I stood and prayed for their safe passage to
the right hand of God and wept in memory of your little Christophe,
Cathérine and Cécile, Maman, who were never intended long for this
But there is little to be gained by dwelling on the past, is that not
so? And events here provide little opportunity.
Friendly natives arrived to meet us. They came in small groups,
appearing out of the bush, lining up along the shore to stare at us.
The men looked fierce, with intricate designs penned into the skin of
their faces, the chiefs with feathers in their hair. Even a few women
had designs on their chins. My husband placed his arm around my
shoulder, but we were assured we were in no danger. Our Captain
Langlois has been here previously and has traded with the natives for
possession of the land on which we are to settle.
But, oh, là, Maman! The captain brought the natives gifts of clothes
from France and straight away they put them on. Ancient finery from
the salons of Paris for the women and old army uniforms for the men.
I was forced to cover my face so I should not offend by laughing! Still,
we all like to dress up, don’t we, Maman?
A few days later our ship sailed for our new homeland at Akaroa,
on the far side of Banks Peninsula from Pigeon Bay. We were all
anxious to end the interminable voyage. At the entrance to the Akaroa
harbour, the wind failed and we were obliged to anchor. While we
were below decks having dinner, an anchor broke free. Mon Dieu! To
come all this way just to be dashed upon rocks!
Fortunately, two boys playing on deck noticed we were drifting
towards the cliffs that towered above us, surf breaking at their base.
The captain summoned assistance from the French warship, “L’Aube”,
which was already in the harbour to receive us and to ensure our safe
arrival and settlement. Longboats were dispatched and next day, with
much effort applied to the oars by the crew of “L’Aube”, we were
towed safely to the anchorage, known as Paka-Ariki.
As we came by the shore we were startled to see a British flag flying
on French soil. When we asked for an explanation, we were told
it was nothing more than a little vainglory on the part of a British
farmer, so our minds were set to rest.
Here, too, Maman, natives were gathered, some wearing the very
same clothes provided in Pigeon Bay. They must have walked over
these magnificent hills and through the dense forest to meet us.
This place is so different and so beautiful! But not to everyone’s
liking – le Père Malmanche, a gardener from Rochefort, is so over-
come that he has vowed never again to trim his beard until he has
once more set foot in France. But my husband and I have come with
such high hopes. Hopes of a better life. Hopes of our own land, our
own house, and a respected place in the community.
Even so, chère Maman, I sometimes wonder what we are doing
here – even the stars are strange.
Give my love to Papa (if he will receive it) and the children – not
that Jacques can be referred to as a child any longer. I shall write again
as soon as I am able.
Your loving daughter,
The call had come as Sue was locking the back door. It was the
beginning of what was to be an exhausting day. Should she goback?
Ben already had the car engine running, watching her indecision.
His toot on the horn was the decider. Sue unlocked the door, deactivated
the alarm and snatched the phone from its bed. Now she was wishing
she had let it ring. Faced with Ben’s agitation, she had slammed the car
door and said it was a wrong number. ‘It was nothing,’ she added, more
to soothe herself than inform him.
Sue was to accompany Ben and his colleagues, Gaye and Hank Stein-
berg, from the US of A, on a day trip to Akaroa. Ben’s standard tour for
overseas visitors. As usual, Sue would be the dutiful and supportive wife.
She loved the trip, the place, but would prefer to choose her company.
Three hours in a car with three academics, each vying to out-quote
the other, would be enough, she thought, to induce ennui in anyone.
However, it could be interesting, even entertaining – occasionally it was,
in a perverse sort of way; a giggle at someone else’s expense might please
her today. Now. Since the phone call.
Sue let her eye be drawn along the footpath as the car moved through
the Saturday morning streets; watched a youth saunter, hands in pockets,
head lolling forward and bouncing each time he planted a heel on the
ground, as if his pendulous lower lip was yanking it down. He looked
Maori or Pacific Island – she often found it difficult to distinguish the two.
She wondered where he had been and where he was going at such a slow,
solitary but deliberate pace. She envied him his purposefulness …
Ben’s voice cut into her reverie.
‘You’re looking very nice today.’
'Nice? Sue shuddered at the word. Food was the only thing to be
described as “nice”. A high school English teacher had drummed that
‘Don’t I usually?’ Her tone was sharp.
‘That’s not what I meant.’ Ben humphed out a puff of air. ‘And you
know it,’ he added. ‘I mean you look pretty. Your hair …’ He reached
across and squeezed a handful of her brown curls. ‘When the sun catches
The warmth of her husband’s words seeped into Sue and placated
her. Ben really was a dear. She should not snap at him. He did his best,
though his best could sometimes be very irritating. She squeezed out the
word ‘Sorry’ and lapsed into thought.
‘Is that Sue Spencer?’ the woman had asked in a shrill, nasal voice.
Surely they could employ someone with a soft, calming voice, who neither
called you “dear” or “love”, nor was condescending or over-familiar.
Businesslike but understanding was what the job required. Maybe she
should apply for a job as a clinic receptionist … But the idea vanished
as quickly as it came.
When they arrived at the Grand Chancellor Hotel, Gaye and Hank
Steinberg were waiting outside in animated conversation. The left sleeve
of Hank’s silver anorak was pushed up and he was stabbing a thick finger
at his watch. Sue felt more than saw Ben’s quick gesture of anxiety – his
fingers raking his fine, fair hair off his forehead – and she placed a
hand on his knee. She watched their guests through the windscreen:
Tweedledum and Tweedledee, in matching jackets, matching sneakers,
and carrying matching daypacks. They turned and smiled, eyes scanning,
as the car drew in to the curb. Ben yanked on the handbrake and swung
open the driver’s door, one foot on the tarseal before the engine coughed
‘Come on,’ he said to Sue, and slammed the door, reaching the pave-
ment in a few long-legged strides.
Sue was reluctant to emerge from her cocoon of steel and glass. She
hesitated, her hand on the door handle, watching Hank pump Ben’s
limp hand, the ripple travelling all the way to his shoulder. A liveried
doorman stood behind them, completing the tableau. Ben glanced over
his shoulder and Sue shrank back in her seat; she felt invisible but knew
she was not. Gaye stepped to one side to peer around Ben, pulling Sue out
of herself, back to reality, back to her duty. She forced a smile and pushed
the passenger door open. Each step was an effort; the cool morning air
pressed against her, seemingly crammed with more molecules per cubic
metre than ever before.
Sue heard the relief in Ben’s voice as he introduced her.
‘We’ve heard so much about you already,’ Gaye said. Perhaps Sue’s
surprise showed in her face. ‘All good,’ she added.
‘And you’re just as lovely as expected,’ said Hank, extending a large
paw. Sue took it gingerly; it was warm, soft and gentle, in contrast to
her expectation. She thought of her father, not as he was now but as he
used to be: a big teddy bear. Something shifted inside her and she smiled.
Perhaps the day would not be as bad as she had feared.
‘It’s nice to meet you both.’ She touched Ben’s sleeve. ‘Gaye or Hank
might like to sit in the front.’ The gratitude in Ben’s grey eyes was Sue’s
reward. It said he knew she understood that his surety was a sham, that
beneath his authoritative, some might say arrogant, exterior crept a timid
little boy, frightened of putting a foot wrong. No matter how high Ben
might climb, he would feel a fraud at risk of exposure. And Sue knew,
where she believed Ben did not, that this held him back and would never
allow him to reach the top of the tree. ‘For the view,’ she added. ‘I can
see it any time.’
Sue felt noble offering her place, the favoured position, but also hoped
her offer would not be accepted. She could not imagine sharing the back
with Gaye or Hank today, being forced into polite conversation, while
trying to stop her body merging with a larger-than-life companion. In the
front, the seat would curve about her; she could drift with her thoughts
and let the academic conversation oat by; it was so long now since she
had been part of the university world that she did not believe she had
anything to contribute.
‘Oh, no, no,’ said Gaye, a tremor passing the length of her squat body
as she shook her head. ‘We’ll be just fine in the back. Don’t you worry.’
Sue wondered just how transparent she might be.
The beauty of Banks Peninsula always left Sue giddy: the sculpted
landforms, yellow from summer drought, silhouetted against a brilliant
sky; wind-carved macrocarpa; bold green pines. And the memories of
childhood it evoked – summer holidays with her parents and younger
sister, Jayne – walking, sailing, swimming, until …
They crested a ridge and looked down into Akaroa Harbour. Ben
pulled into the car park at The Hilltop Café and Bar. The crunch of gravel
sounded loud and the intense blues, yellows and splashes of bottle-green
seared Sue’s vision. The sun had burnt off the early mist and even the
‘Spectacular!’ exclaimed Hank. He and Gaye stood side by side holding
hands, Hank gently stroking Gaye’s dimpled knuckles with his thumb.
He let go. ‘Fetch the camera, Hon,’ he said. ‘Nothing quite like it back
Ben stood to one side, leaning on the fence, plucking the top strand
of No. 8 wire. Sue stood beside him and slid her hand along the wire to
touch his. Since the phone call, she had become insubstantial. As though
she might drift away if not anchored. She needed to feel him, assure
herself of his solidity, his warmth, his substance; so that she would know
for sure she existed.
The woman with the irritating voice had said that her repeat mammo-
gram had revealed a well-defined tumour. ‘It may be benign, but we
can’t be sure without a biopsy.’ The first mammogram had been unclear,
a technical problem, Sue presumed initially. But a niggling doubt had
wriggled at the back of her mind. She had tried to disregard it and decided
to say nothing to Ben until she was sure of the result, one way or the
other. It was probably nothing. It had been only a routine examination,
Sue butted her hand against Ben’s … and he moved away. To give her
more room, she supposed – it was not what she wanted, but she could
not explain. Not now. If she were to tell him, how could she broach the
subject without making it sound like a death sentence? And she could
not believe that. She would not believe that. Besides, they were with
strangers; she could not let them into her private world.
‘That’s Akaroa village over there.’ Ben pointed across the harbour.
‘We nearly became a French colony. Lucky escape.’
‘How was that?’ asked Gaye.
‘Sue’s the historian,’ said Ben, giving her a nudge – her cue. ‘Masters
in History, First Class Honours.’ He said it with a smile she could think
of only as triumphant. He knew Akaroa had been a holiday place to her
rather than one of historical interest. Did he want her to make a fool
Sue knew little about its settlement, just the common knowledge – the
race between the French and English in 1840, whaling, timber, farming.
She winged it – they would not know the difference. ‘There’s a little
museum,’ she finished. ‘It’s supposed to be good, if you’re interested.’
Then honesty prevailed. ‘I blush to say I’ve never been in it. It’s the
view – the land, the sea – that attracts me most.’
‘The whole of Banks Peninsula is volcanic,’ said Ben. Sue cursed
silently; he just could not help himself. ‘This harbour is a crater.’
‘Oh, my,’ said Gaye and Hank in unison.
The sun was directly north, cross-lighting the hills behind Akaroa
Village, sculpting them into soft promontories and dark gullies. The
sky was the same vivid turquoise as the sea, or vice versa – the colour
surprised Sue anew each visit. The harbour lay full and sparkling. Tiny
white boats bobbed close to the shore; the long wharf jutted into the
water and further round stood the lighthouse.
‘It’s just an historic relic, relocated from the Heads after the switch to
automatic lights,’ said Ben.
Sue’s mood paralleled their downward spiral to sea level. The conver-
sation between the three colleagues had no need of her, waxing and
waning about her, one voice after another in the ascendency. She was
unable to keep her thoughts away from the phone call and its implica-
tions. She kept repeating to herself that the lump was benign, but part
of her knew that might not be so. Sue was now older than her mother
had been when she finally succumbed to breast cancer – thinking about
it even now made her eyes sting. The wasted body. The wedding ring
loose on her finger. The huge, sunken, clouded eyes beseeching. Sue
blinked rapidly and fumbled in the glove box for sunglasses. She would
have made her mother whole again if she could – she had tried; every
day before leaving for school she had tried. She would lean over the bed
and smear rouge across her mother’s taut cheekbones to camouflage the
grey translucency, and apply coral lipstick to the pale, limp lips. ‘You’re
looking better today, Mumsy,’ she would say. ‘Better still tomorrow.’ And
her mother would give a wan smile. How bizarre she must have made
her mother look – a brightly painted almost-corpse. Sue had not minded
touching the thin skin, which lay in wrinkles and moved, cool and damp,
under her fingers, making patterns like sand left by the outgoing tide.
She was not going to let her mother give up hope, even once Sue herself
had realised the tide was not coming in again.
Four long months her mother lay in bed and followed Sue with dull
eyes as she moved about the bedroom, tidying, smoothing, dusting,
drawing curtains, carrying basins of water, dispensing medicine. Those
eyes. To this day, they followed her – she could see them now, boring
into her. No child should have such responsibilities, Sue thought. Had
she still been a child though? Her mother’s illness had made her grow
up abruptly. But Sue sensed something had been aborted, left unfinished,
something soft deep inside, like an unbaked gingerbread woman.
The road followed the geography of the coastline: in and out of bays,
up and down hills, each turn, each crest offering another spectacular view.
But the colours had dulled for Sue. The birdcalls through the open car
windows sounded just like birdcalls, not like the silver notes that usually
rang for her. After a slow cruise through the main street of Akaroa, they
parked the car and walked. Food was a priority for the visitors, but Sue
had little appetite.
‘Where shall we lunch?’ Ben asked her.
‘You choose,’ she replied.
‘What about Bully Hayes?’
‘You always choose there.’
‘You said I should choose.’
Sue shrugged again and forced a smile. The droop of her shoulders
was making her neck ache. ‘The food’s good,’ she assured their guests,
and once more she was aware of relief drawing Ben taller. Today his
dependence on her was conspicuous and weighed heavy.
Hank steered towards a table by the open doors, not exactly outside,
but hardly inside either. Gaye followed purposefully, while Ben and Sue
trailed behind. The two couples sat across the table from one another.
‘Bully Hayes was an American buccaneer who sailed the South Pacific.
I Googled him once,’ Sue volunteered, making an effort. As they waited
for their food, she examined the two moon faces above the silver jackets.
She had read somewhere that many people are attracted to a partner who
approximates what they would like to be: their ego ideal. If that was so,
Sue thought, grinning inwardly in spite of herself, then Hank and Gaye
must be in love with themselves as well as each other. She contemplated
what had drawn Ben and herself together, that winter at university, when
she was a graduate student and Ben was among a group of undergrads
she was tutoring. It was not that she had wanted to be like Ben, but that
each had something the other needed; together they were more than
the sum of their parts and approximated a whole. The trouble was, she
decided, nothing remains static. She was no longer the person Ben had
married; she was quite sure of that. And she had a sense that somehow
the marriage itself had changed her, that with time the parts had reshuffled
and formed two distinct and new patterns rather than one whole, not
that she could see the patterns clearly yet.
Ben’s right hand moved restlessly over his cutlery, rearranging, straight-
ening, aligning. Sue placed a hand on his, seeking again that comforting
whole feeling, but he pulled it away. She felt reproved. Had he thought
she was censuring him? She caught Hank’s eye; he had noticed, and she
felt humiliated. Abruptly she turned her head, gazing across the road,
through the palm trees at the shimmering sea. The leaves stirred like gull
wings in the rising breeze. Sue felt herself oat and hover, drift up and
out, over the road and its tourist buses, over the line of trees along the
sea wall, over the water and up above the collar of volcanic hills. She
wanted to drift forever in clear blue salt air.
For there was something else Sue was sure about: she was not ready
to die. She had never expected anything abnormal to show up in her
mammograms; even though her doctor considered her “high risk”, she
did not. There was no sense of relief or gratitude whenever a negative
result was confirmed. She was not her mother, nor her grandmother;
she led her own life with its own course and could see no reason to
expect her cells would become malignant and turn against her, as theirs
had. Over the years Sue had dismissed the kernel of anxiety that lurked
within her. In fact, she had barely recognised its presence. Remnants of
the immortality of adolescence had clung to her – until, as the result of
this morning’s phone call, those remnants had fallen to the floor, a tangle
of tattered rags.
The afternoon passed in a blur of sights and sounds, movement and
stillness. Sue felt she was in slow motion in an accelerated world. Even
language could not be relied upon to mean what it seemed. She had not
felt so alone since she was sixteen and newly motherless. Could she keep
this to herself? She did not want to worry Ben, especially if it turned
out there was nothing wrong; he was immersed in the beginning of the
academic year. And she certainly was not going to alarm the children.
She wondered whether she could share the burden with Jayne. It was
relevant to Jayne, but would she want to hear of it? Reason told her
she would not. Jayne was so much younger that they had never been
true companions or confidantes. They exchanged only good news: news
of Jayne’s advancement in the international finance company in which
she worked, news of Jayne and Nigel’s latest ski trip or their hike up
Kilimanjaro to see the sunrise. Jayne had only half an ear for Sue’s news,
which comprised mainly what the children were doing. Sue always came
away feeling rather dull after speaking with her sister. But she knew it was
important to keep in touch; it was what their mother would have wanted
and she took it upon herself as the older sister to ensure it happened.
Through the windows of the restaurant, Sue watched a toddler running
rings around her mother, determined not to do as she was told. She was
cute, but boisterous, giggling and shrieking. She reminded Sue of Jayne
at the same age: a bundle of blonde, blue-eyed curiosity. Sue remembered
the crayon scribble in her favourite books, her doll, Molly, with her
sleeping-eyes poked to the back of her head. She had failed to protect
her precious belongings and only had herself to blame, her mother had
claimed; the accusation did not feel fair – then or now.
With time, Sue had learned how to protect. She had sheltered Jayne
from the seriousness of their mother’s condition and did all the motherly
things she could not. Sue did not mind; in fact it had made her feel
important. Only she and their father knew her mother had cancer; only
they knew she would get progressively worse.
But Sue had to talk to someone. She would ring her friend Annie
Henderson, and arrange lunch. Annie would not overreact; she would
keep her confidence. Having made the decision, the rush around Sue
seemed to slow down and let her catch up.
‘These pearls are magnificent,’ said Gaye. ‘Abalone. Who would have
‘Paua,’ Ben corrected.
‘Abalone – paua,’ said Sue. ‘Come and let’s see if there are any dolphins
out there.’ She took Gaye’s arm and they walked to the end of the wharf.
A smooth-feathered gull perched on a pile, rotating its white head to cock
a red-rimmed eye at the approaching women. Laser-beams of sunlight
shot from the crests of the rippling water. Blinding. Two men and a boy
fi shed from the end of the wharf, their legs and lines disappearing over
‘Dunno wot he wis thinkin’ of,’ said the older man, staring from under
his floppy hat into the distance.
‘Beats me,’ said his mate, with an incredulous twist of the head. His
chuckle morphed into a bout of chesty coughing. The boy hauled in his
line and examined his bait. Sue noticed their bucket was empty but none
of them seemed concerned.
Three tourist launches milled about in deep water, mid-harbour.
‘You should be out there,’ she said to Gaye. ‘That’s where the dolphins
‘We’ll have to come back some day,’ said Gaye. ‘Coming from a land-
locked city, I find this scenery just …’ She gestured wide, her mouth wide
also, waiting for words.
‘Every time. Whatever the season,’ Sue said, and turned back to see
Ben and Hank staring down into a fishing trawler moored against the
wharf. Large crates of glistening silver stood on the deck. A string of
gulls decorated the rigging like regatta bunting.
Sue felt in and of the world.
On the ride home, Sue fell silent again. She thought of Jayne in her
reportedly large, suburban London house. Jayne’s plans had put paid
to her own. Her departure for Europe had tied Sue to Christchurch; she
could not leave their father alone. The resentment she had failed to voice
then still smouldered, a hot cicatrice. But then, if she had not remained,
she would not have met Ben. And there would be no Charlotte, no
Jason; it was impossible to picture a life without Charlie and Jase.
They stopped for coffee at Little River. Sue slipped her hand into Ben’s
as they wandered through the adjoining art gallery.
‘You’re quiet today,’ Ben said. His tone was not accusatory.
‘Just thinking,’ said Sue, ‘how lucky I am.’ She meant it as she said it.
Ben squeezed her hand.
Shrugging off the family had not been easy for Jayne; Sue could see that
now. She had left in a fury of defiance and protest that had diminished
her father and enraged Sue. ‘You’re a self-centred little bitch,’ Sue had
shouted one night, defending their father. But she had not confessed her
own hurt, her own feelings of rejection and her dashed hopes. Jayne had
never returned to New Zealand and had not seen their father since. She
would not recognise him now, Sue thought sadly.
They said goodbye to Hank and Gaye outside their hotel. For a
moment, Sue was afraid Ben was going to invite them home for a meal.
Another time she would have been pleased.
Evening light slanted across the room, casting long-legged shadows of
the dining table and chairs against one wall. Curled in an armchair,
clad in her dressing gown, Sue felt small, foetal, incomplete. She looked
around as if seeing the room anew. It had always been a comfortable
space for her, but tonight it felt foreign, larger and impersonal, as if
the Sue who had been living here for nearly twenty years had been a
different person. A glow washed the room, repairing the aftermath of
family living – snags of sandal buckles on the sofa, bumps in the paint-
work. She got to her feet, running her fingers along the wall lined with
books for all ages, almost surprised to recognise the titles. She lifted
from the coffee table a volume Ben had been reading and pressed it
against her chest. There was fleeting comfort in its hardness, its solidity.
Her forefinger lingered a moment on its stiff spine, then she slotted it
back on a shelf. It was only a book.
The intoxicating perfume of roses drew her towards the ranch-sliders,
the smell of something familiar in the sea of strangeness. Beyond lay her
garden, the end already in shade. The shadow was creeping nearer and
nearer; Sue could feel it. It had substance; it was invasive. She shivered
though it was not yet cold and turned back into the room. Above the
couch hung a painting by Charlie, created last year for her Bursary art
portfolio. Sue loved it, and, rather than do battle with Ben, had dipped
into her own savings to ensure it had a frame that did it justice. The rich
colours and abstract forms set her wondering, as she had many times,
at her daughter’s talent. She shook her head gently in amazement, while
her arms wrapped her middle as though holding herself together. In the
distance, strident strains of rock music emanated from Jason’s room.
How she wished he would keep it down; but, if that was the worst of
his crimes … Ben, as usual, was in his study.
Tao wandered in from the garden, aristocratic head held high, tail
erect and twitching, announcing himself with a throaty, inquisitorial
grumble. A place inside Sue warmed and she mimicked his growl. He
leapt lightly into her lap as she sat. Smoothing his chocolate fur was
soothing. ‘Such a pretty boy,’ she cooed. He settled with his paws on her
breasts – her possibly cancerous breasts – his nose pressed to her chin,
‘If I died tomorrow, Tao, what would I have to show for my life,
besides my children? Tell me that.’ There was nothing that defined her,
Sue realised. Somewhere along the line, she had become … invisible. What
she did had substance, but it gave weight to others, not to her.
Tao made no satisfactory reply.
Sue wondered where the determined, ambitious young woman of her
adolescence had gone. She had not thought of her for years, but now,
suddenly, she missed her; she felt bereaved. Lying on her narrow bed
– watched over by James Dean on one side, Ringo, Paul, George and John
on the other, “Eleanor Rigby” flooding her senses, Joni Mitchell stacked
beside the tape-deck – young Sue had made plans. She would be an
historian. Past lives were fascinating; she found they held a richness and
portent lacking in the present. She would bring them alive for others.
Intuition had told Sue even then that the past gives meaning to the
The sun dropped behind the neighbours’ trees as if a light had been
switched off and the Dalí-esque dining table and chairs no longer graced
the eastern wall. Sue and Tao had not moved when Ben walked in half
an hour later.
‘What are you doing in the dark?’ He switched on the light. Sue hid
her eyes from the glare, feeling naked. ‘Something wrong?’ He crossed
the room. His hand on her shoulder was firm and reassuring, but she
shrank from his question. She had to hold in her fears; she had decided.
But it was all she could do not to spew them out.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘Just hold me.’ Tao dropped to the floor as Ben
gathered her to him. She pressed her face into his shoulder, feeling the
coarse weave of his polo shirt, inhaling his Ben-smell, and knowing he
would wait till she was ready to tell him whatever it was; he was good
‘Stay here and I’ll make you a drink,’ he said. He switched on the
standard lamp and extinguished the main lights. Sue lay back with her
eyes closed, thoughts whirling and interweaving like gymnasts’ ribbons,
oblivious to Tao sitting upright a metre away, flicking his tail and glaring,
Buy now, or read on.
They made love that night.
Sue’s resolve not to tell had melted in the presence of Ben’s concern
and attention. Suddenly her reasons for keeping the news from him
became spurious. She could not shut him out. They were in this together
– this life, everything: kids, cancer, Alzheimer’s, the lot. Besides, there was
no good reason Ben should be protected when she was suffering.
They sat on the couch under Charlie’s painting, nursing their coffee
mugs, while Sue spoke of the woman with the nasal voice, of the results
of the mammogram and the need for a biopsy. But she could hear her
clipped tones giving away little of what she felt inside: her fear, her worry
that a cancerous growth would be discovered and her certainty that she
would be dead in six months. She was still pretending; pretending to be
strong. Sue searched Ben’s face for signs that he, too, might be afraid,
and found them, flickering briefly deep in his eyes and lingering in the
tight creases around his mouth.
‘You should have told me sooner,’ he whispered, burying his face in
her hair; his breath sawed in and out, its warmth spreading through her.
She felt her body relax and a wave of relief wash her mind clear. As Ben
pressed against her, heat welled inside her unbidden. She arched her back
while his fingers fumbled with her shirt buttons. He had not undressed
her since … she did not remember when.
‘Don’t,’ she said, sitting up abruptly and wriggling away from his touch.
‘My breasts. I don’t even know which one it is.’ She imagined malignant
cells being squeezed from a cancerous lump and disseminating around her
body, lodging in other organs, to multiply, expand and take over, squeezing
the life from her, as they had from her mother and grandmother.
‘It’s all right. I don’t mind,’ Ben said. He had missed the point
completely, but Sue was too shocked to describe her imaginings. ‘I won’t
hurt you,’ he added.
‘The children,’ Sue mumbled, a second line of defence. Ben led her to
their bedroom. Seamlessly their movements evolved into their familiar
pattern of lovemaking, urgent but passionless, leaving Sue bewildered,
dissatisfied. What should be – what used to be – replenishing, no longer
was. It was like trying to catch an eel with bare hands: you thought you
had it by the tail and then it slipped away into the murky depths and all
you had in your grasp was slime.
Sue lay awake for hours, long after Ben was asleep, exhausted but
sleepless, snippets of memory scrapping for attention: her mother, her
father, her children. Jayne. Ben – her dear husband, who had helped her
dare to love, to lose herself in another again, after the loss of her mother.
Somehow they were now at risk of losing each other in dangerous waters.
Reaching out and just missing. Grasping a handful of coat or sleeve,
but nothing substantive. Would they drown? Tentatively, Sue extended
a hand and laid it between Ben’s shoulder blades, but her touch did not
penetrate. In another age, they had fallen asleep entwined. One plus one
25th August, 1840.
Ma chère Maman,
I do not know when you will receive my letters. This is hard when I
know you will be waiting anxiously for them, as I am for news of you.
Occasional cutters, I am told, come into this harbour on their way
to or from Australia and will take our mail. So, too, will the French
whalers, when they head to northern waters for your summer. I shall
write when I can and be ready to avail myself of an opportunity when
it arises, all right?
Although it is winter, the weather is quite warm by day when the
sun shines. But the cold envelops us as soon as the sun drops behind
the high hills that surround the harbour like a collar. And, can it rain,
Maman! And the mud! Mon Dieu! In some places it comes right over
the top of my boots and seeps through my stockings and between my
toes. Everything is encrusted with mud. We are so much at the mercy
of the elements. The canvas of our shelters provides little protec-
tion and sometimes I have to speak most sternly to myself to avoid
becoming discouraged. It is difficult to keep warm at nights, once
the fires burn low. Rather than undressing for bed, we put on all the
clothing we possess, which is little enough, since we had to come with
but one change.
As you know, the Company undertook to provide all our needs
for the first year. But it gives us meagre rations. And my husband
has learned that goods are not to be free as promised, but supplied
on account! And at such prices, Maman! You can imagine he is not
best pleased, and I have discovered he can be a fearsome force when
angered. We did not expect to start our married life in debt. There has
been much talk about it amongst our people, but it seems there is little
to be done. I have to admit to feeling cheated and share this sentiment
with the other women, as we strive to make our encampment feel like
But there is no cause for worry, Maman. It is not what I am used
to, but we can cope with a little hardship in the interests of a better
I was surprised to find we are not the only people living in this land.
There are some English scattered about – farmers, I’m told, and others
who have, in the past, been whalers. There is even an English magistrate
living aboard our naval vessel until suitable accommodation can
be erected on shore! I would not have expected such consideration
between rivals, but there is something comforting about it.
Further down the harbour there is a settlement of natives. They are
called Maoris. They are dark skinned and broad featured and wear a
peculiar mix of clothing, some cloaks and skirts of their own coarse
weave, and some old jackets and trousers traded from whalers. My
husband counsels me to keep a safe distance from the natives, but his
warning is unnecessary, as I feel quite wary in any event. However, I
have not yet encountered any of them when unaccompanied.
We cannot, of course, converse with any but our own, due to our
different tongues, which seems a strange state of affairs if we are to be
The tri-colour is yet to be raised over our tiny settlement. I do
not understand the delay. Nor do we understand the presence of the
English magistrate. Captain Lavaud is the King’s Commissioner and
the person in charge at present. There is some jostling for position
between Captain Langlois and M. Belligny (the official representative
of the Company) now that we are no longer at sea. Heated words,
I am told. My loyalties are divided, as I cannot but be grateful to
Captain Langlois for bringing us safely here.
Already plans have been drawn up for allocating “small” lots of
at land for each family near the harbour. Small? A half-acre, I am
told, all our own! But it is a half-acre of bush and scrub, Maman. I do
not yet know which is to be ours. But it will be good, I think, to start
making ourselves a home in this surprising and temperate land. It is so
different from all I have known; yet I know it.
At sunrise and sunset this place is blessed by the hand of God. The
first and last rays of golden light kiss the tips of the mountains, soft
coral clouds sitting above them like a crown. I kneel and say a prayer
that God will watch over us all wherever we are, and trust that His
will will be done.
I pray that cher Papa will set aside his hurt and once more open his
heart to me. I accept now that he was reluctant to permit my marriage
to a man who earns his living with his hands. But Claude is a good
man and a hard worker, and I feel honoured that he would choose a
slip of a girl like me as his wife, and I will prove myself worthy of him.
You understand about wifely duty, chère Maman, so you must see
that I had no choice but to bend to my husband’s will and accompany
him to this place so far away. And you understand my dear husband’s
desire to better himself and to have land of his own, instead of tending
the gardens of others like his father before him and his father before
that. This is a new land, a land of opportunities, albeit a land of hard
labour. My husband will need his wife to stand by him and give him
Please speak to Papa on my behalf, Maman, and try to persuade
him to our point of view. It pains me greatly to have this rift between
Love to you all,
Sue lifted her father’s hands, gently massaging them, the skin slipping
easily across the bones, the veins rubbery cords under her thumbs. She
planted the toes of her sandals firmly against his slipper-clad feet, as the
carers did, and pulled him upright. He rocked back and forth, heels to
toes, adapting to the vertical posture like a young foal finding its feet.
He smiled and nodded, eyes locked on hers, little taller than she was
these days. He seemed to be searching remnants of memory bank for
a clue as to who this familiar woman might be. The hurt bit deep. Sue
knew it should not, that it was unreasonable, that it said nothing about
his love for her, but she felt it just the same. Ever the gentleman, he
smiled and nodded.
‘Can I go home now?’ he asked in an ingratiating tone, worrying her
sleeve. ‘My wife is waiting.’ The pleading in his voice cut Sue and made
her feel like a jailer. ‘She needs me. I … I thought my daughter was coming
…’ His eyes searched the dayroom. ‘But you’ll take me, won’t you?’ The
dark eyes held Sue. There was a brittle glassiness to their sheen. They
seemed even blacker than she remembered, the whites yellowed and
veined like the old marbles she coveted as a child, with tears brimming
behind slack lower lids. Words stuck in Sue’s throat.
‘Th-this is your home, Dad.’ She put an arm around his bony shoulders
but he pulled away. This was terrible; now that he no longer recognised
her, she could not even comfort him. She swallowed and changed tack.
‘Your wife is being well cared for while you take a breather here, Bert.’
She patted his hand. ‘She’s resting comfortably and wants you to know
that.’ Sue hated doing it, telling him lies, pretending her mother was still
alive. But if that was the era to which he had returned, then that was
where she must meet him.
Bert Austin had been gradually but steadily declining over several
years. Recently, the slope had become increasingly slippery and in the last
three months the slide had accelerated. Sue agonised over the changes in
him, the indignities of his failing abilities – the food on his shirt, the stain
in the groin of his trousers, being undressed by young girls and wearing
nappies to bed. He now gave Sue the same vacant smile he offered the
Agency carers he had never set eyes on before. For a time before that,
he had thought she was Jayne.
Sue’s lies were rewarded by a toothless grin – lately her father refused
to wear his false teeth, insisting they belonged to someone else. He had
bitten a nurse who was struggling to insert them, snatched them out of
his mouth and thrown them across the room. No one had been game
to try since. Sue knew that if her father were aware of his condition,
he would be mortified. He had been a very particular and modest man
who would be embarrassed by his grumpiness, his refusal to cooperate;
it was not his nature.
And if the self ceases to exist, thought Sue, why should the body be
encouraged to struggle on?
Taking his arm firmly at the elbow, she was again surprised at how
little was left of this man of substance, this teddy bear of a man, her
father. Skin and stooped bone – that was all. Time had diminished him
even more than his losses: first his wife, then his younger daughter.
‘Eighteen is far too young to go off alone to the other side of the world,’
he had said when Jayne had announced she was going on her big OE.
He had gripped Sue’s arm and fixed her with sad, brown eyes, as if he
expected her to prevail upon Jayne; his authority had evaporated since
his wife’s death. His fingers had dug into her arm as they watched the
aeroplane swallow Jayne up. The emptiness in the pit of Sue’s stomach
then, matched the emptiness she felt now.
Her father had eventually recovered enough to continue living. When
Sue married, he chose to remain alone in the house in which his wife had
died, much to Sue’s relief. And there he had stayed, with her support, into
old age. As long as possible. Longer than was safe, according to Ben. Sue
wondered whose interests had been uppermost in her husband’s mind.
‘I owe it to him,’ she had said. ‘And to Mum.’
‘You’ve more than done your duty. No one could criticise you for
putting him in a home now.’
No one but Sue. For it was not about duty, but about love.
It was only a few months since the house had been put on the market.
Sue had not told her father; although he had ceased speaking of returning
home and seemed well settled in the rest home, it had never been openly
acknowledged that he would remain there for the rest of his life. She
could not place that sentence upon him. Besides, it would register but
not remain; so it would be a new shock every time he heard it.
The house fetched a good price, despite its rundown condition. Ben
said the value was in the land and that some developer would probably
raze it. Sue shuddered at the thought; she had wanted to renovate and
rent, to know the house was still there, warmed by a family. But Ben and
common sense had prevailed.
Sue led her father into the secure courtyard. It took some persuasion to
get him to sit on the bench-seat under the elm tree. Here Sue could talk
without being overheard – she needed to talk, to confide in her father.
The fact that he would understand little or nothing served her purpose:
she would not distress him. Watching the industrious honeybees in the
herbaceous border dip in and out of bright blooms, pressed against her
father, inhaling his familiar smell, the years slipped away. She wondered
how many more times she would sit here with him and who would visit
when she was gone. Ben perhaps, occasionally. The children? – unlikely.
She imagined him waiting for her indefinitely, then realised that was how
it was already, now that he no longer knew her.
Sue told her father of the abnormal mammogram, of the pending biopsy,
her fear of dying a drawn out and painful death like her mother.
‘Dad, I’m not ready to die. I’ve barely lived.’ She held her father’s hand
and felt it mould to her own. He sat quietly, occupied with something – or
nothing – inside himself. But it did not matter; his warmth, his closeness
‘I don’t mean to sound selfish,’ she said. ‘I don’t begrudge Ben and the
kids. I just feel there’s more out there and I have to find it.’
Sue’s ambition had died with her mother; studying became no longer a
means to an end, but a diversion, an end in itself. An avoidance, though
she had not realised it. And, when she and Ben married, she had willingly
taken the first job that came along, an assistant archivist in the Canterbury
Museum, to support Ben through the rest of his studies. She had taken
pride in caring for her husband and raising their children – making a
family. She knew she was out of step with most of her generation. Even
Annie had a full time job then. But she had felt driven, as though this
was the reason she had been put on this earth.
Now, it was not enough.
‘It scares me,’ Sue said. ‘I don’t know where it will lead, Dad.’ She
faced her father and saw tears in his eyes. She wanted to believe he had
understood, that he sympathised, and most of all, that he still held the key
to who she was; that he knew, even though she did not. How sad it was
that she could not ask him; she could ask, but there would be no answers.
So many questions were forming in her mind, swirling, coalescing, then
falling apart again, and it was too late. A blackbird warbled above their
heads and a supply van ground past on the other side of the high paling
fence. Sue felt as trapped and bewildered as her father.
Annie was late – as usual. As she waited, seated in the courtyard, Sue
watched two seagulls circle, squawking, fighting for supremacy and a
position atop a tall wind sculpture on the forecourt of the Art Gallery
across the road. She thought again of Jayne – resentment tinged with
envy. Sunlight glanced off steel.
‘Sorry I’m late.’ Annie squeezed Sue’s shoulders and planted a kiss on
her cheek. She slid into the chair opposite. Immediately her bag started
playing “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”. Annie rummaged
through it, then resorted to distributing much of the contents over the
wrought iron surface of the table. Sue smiled, contemplating her friend’s
disorganisation: it was only benign disorganisation, not a terminal condi-
tion. In many things, Annie had remained reassuringly unchanged since
school days. Sue waved a menu as Annie switched off her cellphone.
‘You’re a tonic,’ Sue said, lifting her face to the sun.
‘Are you needing one?’
Part of Sue wanted to let her cancer fears come pouring out, while the
rest of her wanted to relegate morbid thoughts to the back of beyond.
A waiter arrived clad in black, a strip of flesh and hipbones bared
above her apron. They placed their orders and Sue watched the slim
butt sashay away.
‘Oh, to be young and lean,’ she said.
‘We were once. Eons ago.’
Sue sighed, thinking of how Ben liked her to keep in shape. She recalled
his smug smile recently when the new professor looked her up and down
approvingly. At the time she had been pleased; she was making a good
impression. For Ben. Now she wished she had slapped both their faces.
What was happening to her? Suddenly it felt too much, and yet, at the
same time, trivial. She leant back in her chair as the waiter placed their
drinks on the table. The wine gleamed pale and gold. She rotated the
glass, holding it to the light. ‘Here’s to …’ Everything felt pointless. She
looked at Annie and her shoulders relaxed. ‘To us,’ she said.
‘Salute.’ Annie raised her glass to her nose, swirling the liquid in the
bowl. ‘A crisp, fruity little number with a lingering palate of new-mown
grass, kiwifruit and a hint of oak.’
‘Just drink it.’ Sue laughed; she was feeling better already.
When their meals arrived, they ate for a time in silence, but for the
clatter of cutlery, the clamour of voices, and the clang of a passing tramcar.
Sue found it hard to see the skinny teenager she first knew inside Annie’s
voluptuous and unselfconscious body. The two girls had been alike but
different; whereas life was a serious matter to Sue, Annie romped through
effortlessly; when Sue was in a state of pre-exam nerves, Annie’s humour
and nonchalance would calm her – it still did. After Sue’s mother died,
Annie was the one person who did not behave differently towards her.
She was lucky to have found Annie, she told herself; she was lucky to
have her still.
‘You’re quiet today,’ Annie said. She sounded like Ben.
Sue’s fork gave a flat ring like a cracked bell as she laid it on the rim
of her large white plate. She drained the last mouthful of wine and raised
her empty glass. ‘I need another.’ She gestured to the waiter.
‘That serious?’ Concern twisted Annie’s pretty features.
Sue nodded and gripped the edge of the table. ‘I might have cancer.’
The words she had been holding back just popped out.
‘Oh, my God!’ Annie’s hands stopped her mouth. ‘Suzie!’ She reached
over and grasped Sue, as though she could hold her there against any
odds, stop her from disappearing, and it felt good.
‘Well,’ Sue said, somewhat soothed, ‘they’ve called me back for a
biopsy. So I suppose that’s what it means.’
‘With my history?’ Annie looked away. ‘But it sets you thinking. It has
set me thinking. What have I got to show for my life, Annie?’
‘You’ve got two great kids –’
‘Today, that doesn’t feel enough. I mean, why am I here?’ Sue could
feel herself disappearing. ‘Take it a step further, who am I?’ She spread
her hands in an empty gesture, willing Annie to save her.
‘Now that’s a curly one.’ Annie leant across the table, gazing intently
into Sue’s eyes. ‘Chances are you haven’t got cancer and you’ll have plenty
of time to fi nd out.’ She paused. ‘Know the trouble with you? You don’t
have a passion. Every woman needs a passion.’
‘A passion?’ What was the woman talking about?
‘Every woman needs something consuming. To absorb her, get her
creative juices flowing.’
‘A passion.’ Sue turned the word around on her tongue, then in her
mind. It was a word which conjured up exotica, intensity of feeling
– pleasure and pain – a reason for being. But what was the point of a
passion when she was going to die? And anyway, there was nothing that
she could imagine being consumed by, other than cancer. ‘You’re joking.
Aren’t you?’ Even without the cancer, Sue could imagine how Ben and
the kids would react – they would say she was losing it. They did their
own thing without consulting her, but somehow she could not imagine
But Annie’s face did not suggest she was joking.
‘What about you? Yes, of course. Your work – needy kids.’ Sue flopped
back in her chair as if exhausted by the enormity of the conundrum, unable
to see how “a passion” might help. ‘No employer would want me – on the
wrong side of forty, with no recent experience. A hopeless case, Annie.’
‘Don’t write yourself off. You have a good degree.’
‘What practical use is that?’
‘Use it as a springboard. Become a student again.’
Annie’s persistence was becoming irritating.
‘Three of us at university? Can you imagine it? Even if I’m not going
to die, Ben continually giving me the benefit of his expertise from the
perspective of Assistant Head of Department. And Charlie … I’d just
be an embarrassment.’ She took a large swallow of the wine that had
finally materialised. ‘Jason would think it the joke of the century. All a
mother is good for is stocking the fridge and picking up dirty clothes.
You know teenage boys.’ It was an impossible idea. ‘Anyway, I couldn’t
get my head around anything with this looming over me.’
‘It will be behind you soon enough. Ring me when you get the results,
whatever they are.’ Annie opened her holdall. ‘We’ll lunch again soon.’
Sue took her shoulder bag, small and neat by comparison with Annie’s.
It felt good, safe, to have Annie take charge and her annoyance melted
away. She removed a black leather Filofax sporting tooled initials,
‘I didn’t know there was a “D” in there.’
‘Ben gave me this. He’s a stickler for accuracy. And labels. Puts them on
everything.’ She was remembering how he had wanted to label the electric
switches when the new kitchen was installed, and her own outrage. She
knew at the time she was overreacting; it had surprised and bewildered
her. But she had triumphed.
‘All those hours we used to spend practising signatures, and “D” never
featured. What does it stand for?’
‘Comes from my Dad’s side of the family. I always thought it was
stupid to give a girl a surname for a middle name, especially when I had
another perfectly good one.’
‘Dujardin. But that’s French. Suzanne Marie Dujardin Spencer. What’s
the French connection?’
‘Oh, they seemed to think one branch of his family was descended
from French settlers at Akaroa. But,’ she shrugged, ‘the only family I’ve
known are English and Scottish.’
‘Aren’t you the dark horse? How exciting. Fancy you wondering
who you are and ignoring the fact you’re partly French. How exotique, Madame!’
‘Hardly. Besides, I don’t even know if it’s true.’
‘Well, you’re the historian. Find out. Now, let’s set a date for our next
decent meal. Then I’ll tell you what’s been happening in the Henderson
ménage.’ Annie flexed her arm and glanced at the large-faced watch on her
wrist. ‘Bother. I’m due at work in five minutes.’
‘You go. I’ll fix this.’
'Merci beaucoup. Adieu, Madame.’ They embraced.
Sue grimaced. French. She was not sure about “exotic”, but interesting,
maybe. She had majored in French as well as in history, for no particular
reason other than that she liked the sound of the language and that it
came easily. She had not used it since she and Ben had spent a disastrous
two weeks there years ago; she had not expected his fierce reaction, his
attributing every minor impediment to “French arrogance”. It had quite
spoiled the trip for her and she had been relieved to return to England.
Sue watched Annie dart through the traffic. There was always a flurry
in her wake, skirt flowing, hair flying. The buildings had gained depth
and perspective now that the sun was no longer directly overhead. She
listened to the Arts Centre clock chime two. She did not need to head
for home yet. The roses would wait for dead-heading.
Without thinking clearly, she crossed the road to the Art Gallery and
strolled along the base of the glass frontage – hundreds of panes, each at
a slightly different angle, each a slightly different tint of clear and each
reflecting a piece of fluffy white cumulus floating in blue. She felt herself
lifted, floating, appearing in one image after another, on this cloud then
that, as she drifted towards the main doors. The hard ring of her heels as
she crossed the foyer and mounted the marble staircase to the mezzanine
floor grounded her, but still she did not know where her feet were leading.
Turning right she entered the gallery that held the permanent collection
of historical New Zealand works.
Her feet stopped in front of a pale pen-and-wash drawing: a low
indented foreshore with a few clusters of meagre cottages, iconic wire
fencing, a scatter of sheep, hills densely clad in native bush, while in the
foreground the rear of a woman and child, mourners perhaps, heading
downhill towards the settlement, away from her. Akaroa, from the
Cemetery, looking N.E., 1852, by William Howard Holmes.
How different from the township of today, Sue thought. Not at all the
tourist town where history meets folksy meets eco-friendly. The geography
had not changed: the same outline to the hills and the foreshore, but
the bush had all but gone, with pasture and housing in its place, and
one continuous stretch of town in the foreground; like a child’s activity
book: a black outline which had been filled in with coloured stickers of
buildings, boats, buses, churches, shops and people, until all the stickers
and all the space had been used up. She noted that the cottages in the
painting were of a style that predated even the oldest of the structures
still in existence.
Sue stepped close, then she stepped back, examining every line, every
pale brush-stroke, every nuance. A thrill ran through her and despondency
gave way to a surge of anticipation. This must have been the landscape
as her French forebears knew it.
Finally, she knew why she had come and where she was going.
Buy now, or read on
A passion. Annie’s words reverberated as Sue sat with her family at
the dinner table that night. Much to her annoyance, Ben had needed
two calls to excavate him from his study and was late to the table.
‘Dad!’ Charlie complained. ‘We’ve nearly finished. Your dinner will
be cold.’ Suppressing an approving grin, Sue offered to warm Ben’s food
in the microwave; she could afford to be indulgent.
‘It’s fine. It’s fine.’ Ben wiped her generosity aside, leaving Sue feeling
in the wrong. Perhaps she was. Perhaps she should be more accepting,
as she used to be. Ben was the income earner; he had no doubt been at
work in his study; she had no right to complain.
Ben ate in a quiet and distracted manner.
‘How’s your day been, Charlie?’ said Charlie. ‘Not bad, Dad,’ she
answered herself. ‘Not spectacular, but not bad. All the better for your
asking, Dad.’ Jason sniggered, scooping the last of the food off his plate
and looking sideways at his father. Sue laughed; she could not help
herself. Game, set and match to Charlie. She covered her mouth with
her serviette, watching her husband carefully.
Ben lifted his head, frowning, seeming to register their presence fully
at last. A grin spread slowly, transforming his features, and Sue felt
herself relax, aware, perhaps for the first time, how much Ben’s mood
influenced the family climate. ‘Point taken, Charlie. How’s my princess?’
He tousled his daughter’s hair.
‘Dad, don’t.’ Charlie pulled away, brandishing her fork. ‘You’ll mess
it up.’ Sue and Ben exchanged amused glances. If it was not already a
mess … Charlie caught the look and pulled a face.
These days Charlie was challenging Ben, declining to fit the mould;
Sue wondered to what extent she might dare do likewise. She had a sense
that something needed to change, but was not yet sure exactly what.
‘Any more food, Mum?’ Jason was half out of his chair, craning across
the table to survey the contents of the serving dishes.
‘Help yourself.’ Sue chewed slowly. Passion. Did sixteen-year-old boys
have passions? Maybe; but she should not mistake impulse for passion,
she thought. She looked at her son; thin, lanky, in the middle of a growth
spurt. She was still startled by the deep and unfamiliar voice that issued
erratically from between his sculpted lips. His growth was so rapid he
seemed not to know where he ended and the rest of the world began.
Sometimes it seemed impossible to think that she had spawned him,
this youth, this almost-man. But Jase was not too big to hug and still
confided in his Mum when he felt like it – not often these days, and
certainly not as frequently as Sue would like. Having your children grow
to independence was like … like losing a piece of yourself, she decided.
People talked about letting go, but it seemed to Sue that it was more like
having her arm wrenched off.
A chill spread through her, in spite of the mild, nor’west evening. She
remembered with a pang how they had nearly lost Jason as a tot. It had
been terrifying. The panic when he had not been able to breathe. He rarely
had asthma now, just a bit of a wheeze after rugby practice on a cold
afternoon. He would be a forward to contend with, she thought, when
he filled out a bit. He would have to fight off the women. That profile.
The sweep of his high forehead. The wisp of fine hair falling across his
left eye – like his father. Adonis. But shy and unsure, as his father had
also been when they met.
‘Mmm?’ Sue became aware Charlie was speaking to her.
‘Hello-o. You’re as bad as Dad. Where is everybody tonight?’
‘Your mother’s a bit upset.’ Ben spoke, Sue thought, in a condescending
manner. And he was speaking out of turn.
She frowned at him. ‘No, I’m not.’ She was not going to let him use
her to divert attention from himself. And if he wanted to raise the subject
of cancer with the children, he should have discussed it with her first. ‘I
was just thinking,’ she said vaguely. Ben knew she had decided not to tell
Charlie and Jason until she was certain of the results. Over the years, she
had become skilful at not giving her own problems space and had protected
her children from her deeper feelings. As a consequence, Charlie and Jason
thought teenagers had a monopoly on emotions; parents were taken as
read. Now Sue was wondering whether that was such a good thing.
‘I had lunch with Annie today,’ she said. ‘She wanted to know what
you’re all up to.’ Charlie looked from one parent to the other, appar-
ently astonished at the change of direction, but making no comment. Sue
realised how well Charlie had come to understand the rules of engagement,
wondered what she and Ben were doing to their children.
‘I was asked to review a funding application from K.I.D.S. to the
Whetherby Trust. Annie’s name was on it.’ Ben forked lemon chicken and
rice into his mouth. ‘I supported it, of course. The earlier we can identify
and help these kids the better. Can’t blame the children though. It’s – ’
‘– the parents’ fault,’ Jason chipped in, a cheeky grin on his face,
ducking as if he expected his father to clip his ear.
‘– the social context in which they’re raised,’ Ben continued without
pause. ‘Principally lower SES with certain ethnic groups over-represented.’
Sue had heard it all before.
‘Why don’t you say what you mean, Dad?’ Charlie thrust out her jaw
as she confronted her father. ‘Maori.’ The small scar on her chin where
she had fallen from her tricycle stood out white against her tanned skin.
Sue remembered the blood and the screams, and the horror that her
beautiful daughter would be scarred for life.
‘Well, that is true. I don’t like to say it. But that’s what the stats tell us.
Fifty-five per cent of Maori males will end up in prison at some time in
their lives.’ Sue’s thoughts drifted away, as they tended to do when Ben
was in full flight. She had long ago given up posing a counterargument.
Ben was passionate about his work, she thought. But was it “a passion”,
or was he driven by aspirations? He aspired to a full professorship and
had recently been passed over. His self-righteous anger had been hard to
take after a while. But in what Ben did not say, in his silences, despon-
dency, withdrawal, Sue heard his self-doubt ring clear, and his hurt pained
her. Now he had to work with the new incumbent, Des Grey. Worse, Des
was imported from Tasmania, “probably convict stock” – it had been
Ben’s disappointment speaking. Sue gently chided him, but still hurt in
sympathy. Des could be there for a long time.
Sue was not exactly surprised that Des had been appointed over Ben.
She had seen his CV; he had published much more than Ben. But if Ben
could not see this, she was not going to point it out. She just listened
and watched and soothed as best she could. His authoritative veneer
might fool some, but not Sue – and not, apparently, the Appointments
‘Dad, you’re such a racist!’ Charlie’s words cut through Sue’s
‘I’m as liberal as the next man, just better informed,’ countered Ben,
drawing himself straight in his chair. ‘Maori have every opportunity in
our society, same as anyone else, and only a handful prosper.’
‘Whose fault is that?’
‘Theirs,’ said Ben firmly.
‘That’s bullshit! You’re on about Maori every chance you get, and
you’re not even honest enough to admit it.’
‘Charlie!’ said Sue, shocked at her attack on Ben. ‘Your father just tells
it according to the facts. We have nothing against Maori.’
‘No, some of your best friends are Maori,’ mocked Charlie.
‘Well, they are,’ replied Sue; she felt unaccountably on the back foot.
‘When you’re older, you’ll realise I’m right,’ said Ben.
‘I thought sociologists were supposed to be open-minded and interested
‘They are. I am.’
‘Or did you become a sociologist to confirm your prejudices?’ Charlie
pushed back her chair abruptly and flounced from the room, leaving silence
behind her. Sue saw hurt rather than anger in Ben’s countenance.
‘She’ll grow out of it,’ she said after a moment.
‘Yeah,’ said Jason, grinning.
‘That’s enough from you,’ Sue said.
26th August, 1840.
Ma chère Maman,
I am told that the British ship “Britomart”, which has been lying in
the harbour since our arrival, is expected to leave tomorrow and will
take our mail. So I am rushing to write a few more words to tell you of
the exhausting things that have engaged us these last few days. I have
fallen on to my mattress of fern leaves as soon as the light has faded
every night. Were it not that I am so tired, I would be unable to sleep
pressed at close quarters with so many other bodies. It is not what I am
used to, Maman, and I pine for my little attic room in La Rochelle.
Our first few days were taken up with establishing camp in the rain.
First we pitched tents and the women set up the cooking facilities –
extended fires with rows of cooking pots over them under a canopy,
to prevent our fires being washed away. After so many months of
inactivity at sea, it felt good to have a task to perform and has been
pleasant working in the company of the other women. I am coming
to know them better, now we are no longer seasick and preoccupied
with our own troubles, and I can already distinguish the willing hands
from the lazy and the complainers. (I discount Mesdames Gendrot
and Chardin, who are still grief-stricken after the loss of their little
ones.) Most of the women are considerably older than me, or are sick,
or with child. But I am strong, though slight, and healthy, therefore
By the time we had completed our “kitchen”, the rain had stopped
and the sky cleared. It is amazing how rapidly the weather changes here
from clement to inclement and back again. But there has been little
drying in spite of the sun and the mud is impossible. We have strewn
many armfuls of ferns around the fires but they have disappeared into
the mud in no time.
Four days ago the men were gathered to draw lots for our initial
plots of land. They then marked out the boundaries, cutting their way
through the bush. Imagine, Maman! Land of our own! We will later
receive the rest of the 5 acres promised in the deed we signed at Rochefort.
Now it is up to us to begin to meet our obligation “to work with care
and zeal at clearing the lands” entrusted to us. I am so excited at the
prospect, although I have no illusions about the difficulties that lie
Unlike some men who seem daunted by the prospect of digging
out scrub and fern roots, my husband has wasted no time in getting
started. Our land is flat and sited about half a kilometre from the
shore. It is close enough to hear the waves hiss rhythmically up the
sand and slap against the rocks at high tide and to see the wind
approaching across the water.
It is such hard work clearing the land. Although my husband has
barely stopped to eat during daylight hours, there is little to see for his
labours. With these months at sea, he is no longer used to hard physical
labour. His hands are raw and I have strapped them in rags, but still
he continues, so determined is he. Yesterday afternoon I could bear it
no longer and went to help him in spite of the disapproving glances of
the older women. I know it is not a woman’s work, Maman, but here
the usual niceties do not seem relevant. I shall return again when I have
delivered this mail to the ship.
My husband, Maman, wishes to waste no time in getting me with
child. But I am fearful of lying-in in this raw country and of what
might befall both me and the little one. I know these are disloyal
thoughts but I am unable to staunch the fear when it grips me. I am
inclined to wait and see how others fare first, so my mind can be
eased. In the meantime, I will help my husband in every way possible
and we will profit by my strength and good health.
How is Papa’s health, Maman? Sometimes I fear I may never see
any of you again. It is a thought I cannot allow myself to dwell upon.
May God protect us all!
Please give my love to the children and hold them close for me.
Kisses to you, chère Maman, and embrace Papa as well.
Your loving daughter,
Sue struggled all the next day with the decision about when she should
tell the children, feeling detached, as if she were grappling with a
philosophical question. If the biopsy showed nothing cancerous, then
perhaps they need never know anything about it; but if it was cancer,
then they deserved as much time as possible to prepare themselves. And
since Sue was convinced it was cancer, she concluded the second option
was the course she must follow. Besides, part of her had the magical
idea that only by preparing for the worst might she ensure it did not
By the time everyone arrived home that evening, she was feeling quite
calm – an artificial calm, feelings blunted, numb. Ben hugged her long
and hard and kissed her face all over while she stood like a rag doll. He
led her into the living room and called the children. When Sue spoke, it
was as if she were speaking of someone else.
‘They must have got it wrong,’ said Jason, springing to his feet. Sue
took his hand, held it tightly, and drew him back down. It was a large
hairless hand, bigger than hers, with long fingers, attesting to the size of
man he would be. But to Sue, it was her little boy’s hand, as she caressed
it with her fingertips.
‘It won’t be wrong,’ said Ben. ‘Something must be there. But we
shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what it might be.’ His lean face had
become drawn and grey. Sue felt she should be comforting him, though
somewhere inside, her own voice cried out for comfort, reassurance.
Charlie nodded. She looked as though she was trying hard not to cry,
to be grown up and matter-of-fact. ‘When will they do it, the biopsy?’
Sue shrugged. ‘I see the surgeon later this week.’ It had been arranged
so quickly; another sign to her that all would not be well.
‘I’ll come with you,’ said Charlie, her eyes glistening.
Sue hugged her daughter; it was so nice to have an adult daughter.
‘Dad will come with me. Won’t you, Ben?’ Her eyes pleaded.
‘Da-a-ad.’ Charlie jiggled from one foot to the other, challenge in her
‘Of course. I’m sure it will be nothing.’ He put his arms around Sue
and she gripped him fiercely. Some of her tension eased, and a flood of
emotion escaped her grasp. She wept into Ben’s shoulder, constrained,
gulping sobs. Her children would just have to cope with her feelings for
Buy now, or read on
The biopsy results proved to be negative. The lump was a lipoma, a
benign, fatty lump, Dr Clarke explained to Sue and Ben, not cancer.
Removing it would be a small day-surgery procedure.
‘I’ve had a reprieve,’ Sue sighed. ‘The Grim Reaper will have to wait
a while for me.’
Suddenly she felt light, as if she were escaping the anchoring pull of
gravity. She wanted to shout, to laugh, to cry; to jump up on the doctor’s
desk and dance a fandango, stamping her heels and swinging her hips.
But she restrained herself. She turned to Ben. He sat inert in the upright
chair beside hers.
‘Aren’t you pleased?’ she asked, as he followed her out into the passage.
She searched his face for a reflection of the excitement and relief she felt.
Ben’s brow furrowed and tears stood in his eyes, as if he had heard quite
different news. Sue had not realised how worried he must have been
behind his pragmatic exterior. She slipped her hand in his and kissed his
cheek. ‘It’s all right now,’ she said.
Ben’s sudden movement startled her. He grabbed her to him and held
her tightly. From within the folds of his jacket, Sue could see the curious
glances of waiting patients. But she did not care.
That evening, Sue cooked a celebratory dinner. She had been bursting to
tell Jason when he arrived in from school and had watched the clock as
it showed 4:00, 4:15, 4:45, 5:10. They lived only a ten-minute bike ride
from the school; he was not usually late.
Finally the gate clicked, a bicycle clattered against the side of the
house, the door banged and Jason appeared in the kitchen, dumping his
satchel on the table.
‘Where have you been?’ Sue could not keep accusation from her
‘Jason?’ Irritation had replaced the anticipation of telling her son that
he would not be losing his mother.
‘I’ve been waiting for you, that’s what,’ she said. ‘Where have you been?’
Sue could see the conversation proceeding this way for some time.
‘I’ve had the all-clear,’ she said. ‘So I’ll be here to annoy you for a long
The good news had not emerged as Sue intended, and it elicited barely
a grunt from Jason on his way to the fridge. Still, she told herself, it was
impossible to know what might be going on inside him. Maybe it was no
longer cool to show your mother you loved her or still needed her.
Charlie’s response, when she came in soon after, was quite the opposite.
She danced around the kitchen with Sue, hugged her, squealed, laughed
and cried. ‘Awesome! Oh, Mum.’ She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and
sniffed. ‘I’ve got to go, or I’ll pee myself.’ She rushed from the room.
Jason rolled his eyes to the ceiling; usually that was Charlie’s gesture of
‘Aren’t you pleased, too, Jase?’ Sue could not help herself.
Jason shrugged again. ‘Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?’ He curled his legs
under the chair and pushed himself erect, his palms on the edge of the
table, like a long snake uncoiling. ‘Got things to do. So don’t disturb
me,’ he added, heading for his room. Sue waited for the slam of his door
and the base boom of his stereo, and was not disappointed. She felt her
son moving further and further from her. Even when they were in the
same room he was often out of her reach these days. She knew less and
less about him, what was going on at school, who his friends were. He
never brought James or Connor home now. Perhaps this was just the
way teenage boys were; other mothers seemed to complain of much the
same thing. But Sue had expected something different of her relationship
with her son. She thought it was solid enough to weather the storms of
adolescence that everyone spoke of with apprehension. But now she was
not so sure. Lately she had felt she was living on a fault line. Today, with
Dr Clarke’s pronouncement, she had thought things were stabilising, but
it seemed she was wrong; as one tremor settled, another commenced.
After dinner, Sue rang Jayne. It seemed like stirring up a storm for nothing,
now the cancer scare was over. She wondered if Jayne would think she
was being a drama queen, looking for sympathy. But Jayne should know,
she decided finally; Sue’s scare should sound an alert for her as well.
Jayne should be having regular mammograms and breast examinations
and Sue did not know whether she was. She had to tell her.
Sue was not prepared for the anger that burst from the telephone when
she recounted the story of the routine mammogram, the repeat, the lump,
the biopsy and, finally, the clearance.
‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’ Jayne shouted. ‘You always treat me
like a child. I can’t stand it. I’m a grown woman.’
‘I’m sorry. I … I didn’t mean …’ She was the one who had had the
flirtation with death. She deserved the sympathy and here she was
apologising. Her view of Jayne as a self-centred child was confirmed yet
again. She was only wanting to protect her sister, she tried to convince
herself, knowing that it was not entirely true. If Jayne behaved like a
child, she should expect to be treated like one. Sue felt quite justified in
her stance, at the same time not wanting a rift to grow between them.
Silence dragged on. Sue wondered what Jayne was waiting for her
‘It’s … it’s been a hard couple of weeks,’ Sue said.
‘I’m sorry. It’s just … Would you like me to come over? I can’t really
afford it, but …’ Her voice trailed away.
Sue was surprised at the offer, although she clearly did not want or
perhaps expect to be taken up on it. ‘I’m all right, now the wait is over,’
Sue assured her, meaning it.
‘Really?’ Jayne sounded relieved.
‘I’ll just have a small scar on my right breast. But I haven’t been sleeping.
Dreaming lots. It’s been an unsettling time,’ Sue added, immediately
regretting the opening she had offered.
But she need not have worried. Jayne made it clear that she was
thinking of herself.
‘I can’t imagine having a breast removed,’ said Jayne.
10th September, 1840.
Ma chère Maman,
Day after day the same thing: digging fern roots, clearing bracken,
removing stumps. It is so exhausting! The most I can say for the
weather is that it enables us to burn the debris without fear of fire
spreading. My husband’s hands have hardened with thick yellow
calluses on his fingers and palms. My arms are covered in scratches
and sores from gathering the cuttings into a bonfire, and my clothes
and hair are thick with smoke, a sweet smell which I do not mind. I
have become fit and strong and work alongside my husband most of
the day, as well as joining the other women in the kitchen and beside
the stream with the laundry.
The area cleared grows little by little, but at least we have more to
show for our labours than do most of our fellow citizens. Some seem
overwhelmed by the task and by our conditions; they sit and do little.
I said to Rose and Madeleine, only today, that they will never have
a warm, weatherproof home unless they are prepared to get rough
hands like mine. Although Rose can be excused for now, as she is
expecting another child any day, Madeleine’s youngest was born on
the voyage. She is a good wee soul, and Cathérine, the oldest, at nine
years, could care for her much of the time. But Madeleine did not
appreciate my comment.
It is hard work and at times my spirit almost fails, too. I have little
left for anything else. I take strength from thinking of you, Maman, of
your love and what you would want for me.
All my love,
Next evening at dinner Sue watched her daughter sparring with Ben.
Charlie had been among students picketing the visiting Minister of
Education about student fees.
‘I thought the Minister acquitted himself very well,’ Ben said.
‘Da-ad! He did not. Same old platitudes. Makes me want to –’
‘You’ve no need to protest. You don’t pay your fees. And you don’t
see your mother and me out there protesting.’
‘That’s not the point, Dad.’
‘It’s very much the point, my girl. And it’s embarrassing.’
‘Embarrassing?’ Charlie hooted.
‘How do you think it makes me look?’
‘It’s nothing to do with you, Dad. You’re not that important. If you
don’t like it, just stay out of the way.’
Jason snorted, almost choking. He watched the sparring intently. He
did not need to participate, Sue thought; Charlie was doing it for him.
There was no way Ben was going to concede territory to his daughter.
Gone were the days when everything Ben did was right in Charlie’s eyes
and nothing Charlie did could be wrong in his. Sue wondered why this
struggle was necessary; she did not remember anything like it from her
Positioning her knife and fork symmetrically on her empty plate, Sue
spoke to everyone and to no one in particular. ‘I’m going to research
my genealogy,’ she said. The heated discussion continued unabated. Sue
noted the tight defiant expression on her daughter’s face, the up-tilted
chin. She was a force to be reckoned with. Sue could not help admiring
Charlie; she did not always agree with her, but she admired her spunk.
She waited for a lull in the voices.
‘I said,’ she began again more firmly, ‘I have decided to research my
‘What’s that? Another disease?’ Jason leant forward, anxiety
compressing his face. Perhaps he cared after all.
‘No, you idiot. Her family tree.’
‘That’s no way to speak to your brother.’ Sue put an admonishing hand
on Charlie’s arm, while unburdening Jason with a smile.
Ben examined his wife intently, his brow furrowed. ‘Why?’ he asked
after a considerable time.
‘Why what?’ Sue wondered if she was expected to submit a proposal
‘Why would you want to do that?’
Sue leant back in her chair, folded her arms and wondered what her
husband was thinking. She watched as his brow released and amusement
tracked across his face. She had been right; she had said to Annie that
he would think her a joke. But she was not going to let that stop her.
It was a perfectly reasonable interest to follow. ‘It won’t affect any of
you,’ she said.
‘Yes, but –’ Ben persisted.
‘It interests me,’ Sue interrupted; she could hear the edge in her voice.
‘Why now? All of a sudden?’
Sue shrugged. She did not know that she could be bothered to explain.
Ben should be able to see it for himself, and if he could not, then he
should accept it as something his wife wanted to do, support her interest;
welcome it even. But, in the interests of peace, she put her irritation aside,
taking his enquiry at face value, treating it as reasonable. ‘I suppose it’s
been brewing for a while,’ she said in an even tone. ‘I want to know more
about the people in my past. More about my origins.’
‘I thought it was supposed to be adolescents who had identity crises.’
‘Don’t be rude, Charlie. Your mother’s entitled to pursue something
that interests her.’ Sue silently thanked Charlie for provoking Ben into
shifting through 180º. Frowning at his daughter, Ben scraped the last
of his food onto his fork. ‘Well, if you’re determined to go ahead, you
should start by getting on the internet and –’
‘I’ll work it out.’
‘Just trying to help. All my research experience –’
‘I know. Thanks. But I can do it.’ This was to be Sue’s project, and
she was not having Ben take it over. This was about herself. She could
not profess to understand in exactly what way it was about herself, but
she knew she had to find her own way through; that the journey was as
important as the destination.
‘Sounds bo-o-oring to me,’ said Jason.
‘What do you hope to find that we don’t know already?’ Charlie asked,
genuine interest in her voice.
Jason pushed his chair away from the table and rocked on the back
legs. Sue frowned and shook her head. He made an emergency four-point
‘We know where Nan and her family came from,’ Charlie continued.
‘Perhaps you’ll have to go over to England and Scotland and look up
records in tiny country churches. Now, there’s an idea. Can I come, too?’
she ended, the pitch of her voice rising with enthusiasm.
‘I’m more interested in the French connection –’ Sue started, pleased
at her daughter’s interest.
Jason turned to his father. ‘Isn’t that a movie?’
‘With Gene Hackman,’ said Ben.
‘– at Akaroa,’ finished Sue.
‘I didn’t know it was filmed in Akaroa. It wasn’t, was it, Dad?’
‘The French settlers at Akaroa,’ Sue said, cutting through their conver-
sation. ‘Your great-great-grandparents or great-great-great-grandparents
on Poppa’s side of the family are said to have come from France. I want
to find out if it’s true and learn what I can about them.’
‘The French? That was a fiasco. They weren’t aristocracy, you know.
You’d be better researching the British connection.’ A complacent
expression settled on Ben’s face, fuelling Sue’s irritation. ‘You’re more
likely to find a family castle there, if that’s what you’re after, than a
château in France.’
Sue spent the following afternoon reading in the basket-chair, suspended
in dappled shade at the end of the garden. The morning had seen her
in the library exploring books on the early settlement of Canterbury, in
particular, Banks Peninsula.
It had not been long before she had discovered the list of passengers
who had sailed from Rochefort in January 1940. And among them were
a Claude Dujardin and his wife Brigitte!
Together with the family whisper of French ancestors, the passing
down of the unusual family name of Dujardin, Sue was satisfied that
there was a valid connection and she would eventually be able to trace
the lineage down the generations.
A sense of pride and excitement swelled within her. She needed to
know more; she needed to know why they made such a courageous
decision and embarked on a fraught and dangerous journey across the
world. She wanted to know something of the politics of the emigration
and to understand how life would have been for them when they arrived
in New Zealand.
She had searched out all the available literature. It was difficult not to
be side-tracked into all manner of fascinating areas from Maori history to
local flora, whaling to the “first four ships”. Though Sue had a Masters
in History, she knew so little about this fascinating history so close to
home, so relevant and suddenly so personal.
She became engrossed in reading about the politics of colonisation,
and the manner in which it was acted out in this tiny theatre so far from
Europe. Overall, Sue thought the French came out in a better light than
the English. Especially Captain Charles-François Lavaud of the French
naval ship, L’Aube. She liked what she read of him. He seemed pragmatic,
fair and respectful of both the British and Maori. She became angered
by Lieutenant-Governor Hobson’s duplicity, the half-truths it seemed he
had told Lavaud.
Sue learned that on arriving in New Zealand, Lavaud had taken
L’Aube into the Bay of Islands to make a courtesy call to Hobson. Captain
Stanley of the Britomart spoke French and acted as translator. When
Mrs Hobson indicated she had never been aboard a French man-of-war,
Lavaud invited Hobson and his wife to dine aboard L’Aube. Lavaud
had already learned from the French Bishop Pompallier of the Treaty of
Waitangi signed with the Northern Maori Chiefs. But, it seemed, Hobson
neglected to mention to Lavaud during their collegial discussions that
Major Bunbury was recently returned from the South Island with further
signatures to the Treaty. As a consequence, correspondence from Lavaud
to the French Minister of the Exterior made it plain that he believed it
still possible to claim the South Island (or “Middle Island”) for France.
Hobson then sent the Britomart with newly appointed Police Magistrate,
Charles Barrington Robinson, to sail to Akaroa ahead of Lavaud, to visit
settlements, hold Court in the name of Queen Victoria, and raise the
British flag, claiming sovereignty of the South Island. On finally arriving
in Akaroa, Lavaud found the British coup to be a fait accompli, but was
unable to concede until the French Government agreed to acknowledge
British sovereignty. With the traditional enmity between England and
France, this did not occur until six years later.
So, it had not exactly been a race between the French and the British, as
Sue had believed, but rather, it seemed to her, a subterfuge by the British.
The strength of Sue’s feeling surprised her, and was not in keeping with
the laziness of the afternoon. Had Lavaud not diverted in order to extend
to Hobson the courtesy of one naval captain to another, he would have
arrived in Akaroa well before the British, and may have succeeded in
claiming the South Island, despite a few signatures on a piece of paper.
Then Sue might have been a citizen in a French colony, she thought.
Meanwhile, Sue read, a reluctant Lavaud was made King’s Commissioner
by King Louis-Phillipe and given the responsibility of administering the
French settlement at Paka-Ariki.
It was complicated. As she swung herself gently, Sue concluded she
had absorbed all she could for one day. Her mind was bulging and she
felt strangely disquieted; captured by something that felt larger than her
understanding of it. She closed her eyes, forcing her mind to drift. As she
floated, she listened at first to the world around her, but then, increasingly,
to something inside herself. Something elusive, beyond her grasp. She
became aware of tension in her jaw and let it go slack. Gradually, she
relaxed, her breathing slowed and, before long, she was asleep, the book
securely between her hip and the woven cane.
The breeze arrived, chasing fallen rose petals across the deck like
confetti. A strong grey arch of cloud reached across the western sky,
powder blue below.
Sue woke suddenly, squinting up at Charlie’s silhouette. ‘I fell asleep.
It must be getting late.’ She made to get out of the swing.
Charlie put out a staying hand. ‘Relax, Mum. I’ll get us a cold drink.’
She was back before Sue had gathered her thoughts. ‘Lemonade.’ Sue
accepted the tall glass gratefully. Charlie settled herself in a low wooden
chair boasting gaily-coloured squabs. She kicked off her sneakers and
tucked her feet up. Like mother, like daughter. Charlie’s attitude toward
Sue had softened, even as her attitude to her father had become more tense
and provocative. It felt to Sue that she was sitting with a friend rather
than a daughter, a recent experience, and one she appreciated but could
not yet take for granted; she still could not predict whether she would
meet an adult, a provocative teenager, or a self-centred and obstreperous
toddler. So she savoured moments like this.
‘Tell me about your new man,’ she ventured.
‘How did you know?’
‘Don’t give me that “Mothers know everything” spiel,’ Charlie said.
Sue determined from her relaxed posture that it was safe to pursue
the subject. ‘Is he in Fine Arts, too?’
Charlie hesitated. Her eyes met Sue’s over the top of her glass, sizing
her up, Sue thought, deciding whether or not to confide in her. Charlie
drew her hand across her face, wiping away the bubbles that had sprayed
the end of her nose, and finally nodded. ‘He’s a second-year.’
‘Does he have a name?’
‘Mu-u-um,’ Charlie said, an expression of feigned irritation on her
face. ‘All right. It’s Patrick.’
‘What’s he like?’
Charlie giggled. ‘A hunk.’
‘Charlie!’ said Sue, feeling slight disapproval, but more admiration.
‘Well, he is.’ Charlie stretched her legs and arms sensuously like a long
brown cat; like Tao. ‘He’s tall. Neat looking. Eyes that can see right into
your soul. He knows just what I’m thinking, Mum, before I say it. It’s
‘Amazing,’ Sue repeated softly, registering the mounting flush in her
daughter’s cheeks and the excitement in her throaty voice. She expected
the admiration was mutual – why wouldn’t it be? Warmth spread through
Sue; this was the reward for her hard work. It was amazing; amazing to
see this young woman she had borne and raised, so comfortable with
herself; so much more at ease, unselfconscious, than Sue had ever been.
In her mind’s eye, Sue could see another young woman, younger than
Charlie, wishing she had a mother to confide in. And later, trying to share
with her father the wonder and excitement of discovering her own sexual
being. She remembered his response, too: ‘I didn’t hear that.’ He decided
the sooner she and Ben got married, the better.
Sue was brought back to the present by a heavy, slow whirring of
wings. ‘Look. A wood pigeon. I wonder if he’s brought his mate.’
‘I saw a pair yesterday, perched in the beech next door. Right out on
a limb. Together. So precarious. Big and heavy, bending the branch.’
‘Good. I hope they stay. It’s a good omen.’
‘I do.’ Sue picked up her book and the empty glass.
‘What are you reading?’ Sue held up the book. ‘You’re serious then?’
Charlie screwed up her nose.
Sue nodded. ‘It’s very interesting. Look.’ She leaned forward and
pointed to a list of names. ‘The French settlers. There’s Dujardin.’ Charlie
whistled. ‘Claude and Brigitte Dujardin. It’s a start.’
Charlie took the book and thumbed through the pages, while Sue
summarised what she had read so far.
‘There were forty-five French and twelve Germans who came on the
Comte de Paris,’ Sue said. ‘Men, women and children. The Germans
tramped over the hill to the next bay and set up Germantown at what
is now Takamatua.’
'Really? I didn’t know that.’
‘They all arrived on 19 August 1840. The Comte de Paris was a
‘A whaler? Imagine coming all the way from France in a tiny boat. It
makes me feel ill just to think of it. They must have been tough.’ Charlie
bobbed her head, an approving expression on her face. Sue thought
how companionable it was to be here with her daughter, sharing the
excitement of her discoveries. ‘What does “Whatever of Paris” mean?’
‘The Count of Paris. When it was refitted, the boat was renamed for
the King’s new grandson.’
‘The journey took almost six months – imagine that – long enough
for people to die and be born. Apparently two children died in sight of
land and were buried in Pigeon Bay.’
‘Oh, poor little things. How terrible for their parents.’ Charlie’s eyes
were moist. ‘What a start to life in a new land.’ She clapped the book
closed, leaning forward in her chair. She seemed to wear her emotions
just under her skin, Sue thought; brush it and there they were, raw and
jangling. For a moment, Sue let herself feel again the horror that had
washed over her when first reading of the settlers’ losses: the horror of
when she had feared losing her own son. It must be the worst thing that
could happen to a parent, she thought. She changed the subject.
‘I think Captain Lavaud must have been quite a guy, a really strong
and pragmatic character. It seems he was determined not to allow the
traditional enmity between the English and French prevent the development
of a peaceful settlement. He initiated an agreement about administering
the settlement with Robinson, the lawyer Hobson sent down as Police
Magistrate to represent Queen Victoria. It became known as “the status
‘What was it?’
‘They agreed Robinson would have authority over everyone except
the French, who would be Lavaud’s responsibility, and the British flag
would not be flown until the French Government conceded sovereignty
to the British, which didn’t happen for six years.’
‘The purpose was to conceal from the French settlers the fact that they
were settling on land already claimed by the British.’
‘But that’s deceitful. How can you admire a man who would do
‘Well, Lavaud was between a rock and a hard place. They were still
French citizens and this enabled him to protect them. What do they
say? – “The least detrimental alternative.”’
‘Don’t know that I can go along with that. I’ll have to read it for
Sue could have hugged her daughter, told her how proud she felt; she
was growing into a sensitive and discerning young adult. Instead she
smiled. Where they sat was now in complete shade. The breeze stirred
around them. She shivered. ‘Someone walked on my grave,’ Sue said.
Next day, while Sue had the house to herself, she decided to see what
she could find about the French settlement of Akaroa on the internet.
Anticipating a long session, she carried a mug of aromatic Italian-blend
into Ben’s study and flung back the curtains, letting the morning sun
stream in. Another beautiful day. It can’t last for ever, she thought.
Careful not to move Ben’s papers, Sue sat in front of the computer and
smiled at the image on the screensaver – Charlie last summer, already a
young woman, running into the surf at Tahunanui, tanned and laughing,
long black curls tumbling down her back. Ben could capture a moment
and hold it forever.
Sue moved the mouse. The screensaver disappeared, replaced by a
myriad of icons. She glanced at the screen, searching for the icon for
Internet Explorer. An open file sat on the bottom toolbar. Its title intrigued
her – “What is love?” What is love, she wondered. What did Ben think
love was? Her curiosity was overwhelming. Without a qualm, she clicked
the cursor on the file.
What is love?
coffee coloured skin
stretched smooth over a lean frame
legs without end
fingers that speak
that ash through flutt’ring lashes
fire that fuels my heart
and stirs youth within me?
Sue stared at the screen, transfixed. A muscle twitched in her right
cheek. She pressed her hand to it and read the poem a second time. It
was awful. Bad, bad poetry. “Doe’s eyes.” “Flutt’ring lashes.” Pathetic.
Really. It was not until she read it a third time that she let the words and
the facts they signified pierce her skin and slice their way to her heart.
Hot tears welled up and ran down her cheeks. Her hands flitted over the
surface of her face. This was Ben’s writing. Her Ben. And the poem was
not about her; it was not expressing his love for her. He was writing about
someone else. Who … who was she? Sue must find out; she wondered
how. She could not ask Ben: ‘Who’s this woman you’re writing ridiculous
poetry about?’ She should not even have been reading his file.
Suddenly, Sue felt like a voyeur. She glanced furtively around the room
and out the window to the front gate, as if someone might have seen her.
She minimised the file and pushed the chair back abruptly, withdrawing
her hands from the keyboard as from a hot stove. Trembling, she stepped
away from the computer in an arc, not taking her eyes from it. It could
hurt her. And it had.
Buy now, or read on
19th September, 1840.
Ma chère Maman,
We have been uplifted! The Bishop Pompallier is with us. He
journeyed from a settlement in the north of the northern island of
New Zealand on his ship “Santa Maria”, once he learned we were
founding a French colony here in Akaroa. He is to remain with us
for some time while repairs are undertaken to his ship by Captain
Lavaud’s men. Two French priests are also here as missionaries to save
the souls of the natives and tend to our spiritual needs. One, F. Comte,
speaks the native tongue and will accompany the Bishop further south
on his mission before returning to Akaroa. The other, F. Tripe, is to be
our parish priest. It has been a blessing to attend Mass and to receive
the Holy Sacrament. I no longer feel so bereft, so alone, but connected
once more to my homeland and loved ones. I imagine you and the
children kneeling with Papa in your Sunday best. Here we do not yet
have Sunday best, just clean clothes and soiled. One day we will have
here a House of God, I trust, but I doubt it will ever have the beauty
or riches of Our Lady of Tears. But perhaps it will be beautiful in its
It is easy to feel that God created this wild and beauteous place
and then forgot it; that He is too busy with great works – Kings and
Queens, Nations and Generals – to have time for a few French men
and women struggling to survive at the end of the earth.
I am told it is spring. It is hard to know, as the trees here keep their
leaves throughout the winter. The days are longer and, although we
have heavy rain from time to time, the dry, sunny spells are of greater
duration. We are no longer ankle-deep in mud and are able to prepare
some of the ground we have cleared for planting. This is my task.
In determining where to position this first garden, we have spent
long hours by the light of the oil lamp sketching and planning the use
of our land. My husband, of course, is the one with experience in such
matters and I defer to him, but he does seek my views and has regard
for them. I am lucky, Maman, to have such a good husband. I am
learning not all the men are so. Only last night I heard through the
thin walls of our tent (we have individual tents now!) our neighbour,
M. Girot, berating his poor little wife, Cécile. She was unable to look
me in the eye this morning.
We have decided to build our cottage – eventually – on land yet to
be cleared toward the rear, on a slight rise, leaving sufficient ground
behind for a potager and an orchard. From this vantage point, there
will be a good view of the harbour. We will grow our produce to the
front of the lot where it will reap the full benefit of the sunlight. At
some later stage, I may be able to commandeer it as a flower garden.
There is urgent need of fresh produce in our settlement, not only
for our own consumption, but also for sale to the whalers, and I hope
before long to be able to take advantage of this. Unfortunately, it is
too late to sow wheat this season. We have saved potatoes from our
rations to use as seed potatoes. It has meant going without now, for
future gain. The Company has seeds that were brought from France
– cabbage, beans, lettuce, corn – which we will sow.
Did I tell you we have no animals or fowl? They all died in passage.
Therefore, we have no meat, eggs or milk, and a very restricted and
uninteresting diet as a consequence.
I have high regard for Captain Lavaud and his men. They have
worked tirelessly beside our people, helping the older folk and the
sick to clear their land. They are also creating gardens, one in the
centre of the settlement and the other on the far side of the harbour, to
grow victuals for themselves. They have taken axes and saws and led
teams of men further into the bush-clad valleys and hills, where the
taller trees grow, to fell timber which will be used for building and for
repairs to the “Comte de Paris”, which must soon return to whaling.
Tree felling is difficult and dangerous work, especially since there are
no oxen to assist.
There was a meeting on the foreshore last evening after supper.
Captain Lavaud has decided that M. Belligny is to be official admin-
istrator for our community, but our men demanded the right to elect
our own mayor and councillors. Captain Lavaud was outraged! He
thought us more than presumptuous, impudent, to think that we
should have some say in the administration of the settlement. He said
our men are uneducated ruffians and reminded us that, in France,
they would not be permitted to vote. Indeed, so angered was he that
he made an example of one of our more vocal men by putting him in
irons on board “L’Aube”! We were helpless to prevent it, and most
disappointed, of course, by Captain Lavaud’s attitude. I had to hold
tight to my husband and whisper firmly in his ear to prevent him from
being too outspoken. I did not want him thrown in irons, also.
We had thought, Maman, this was to be our country, and that
we would have a say in how it is run. So, tonight’s debacle is most
Captain Langlois is understandably offended at having M. Belligny
appointed over him, and we support his position. He has been a good
shepherd to us since our departure from France, while M. Belligny,
as the representative of the Company, although a gentleman, seems
sometimes somewhat unsympathetic to our plight.
But my hopes are high. How I long for a time when I will stroll in
my own garden, smell the marigolds and lavender and harvest grapes
from our own vines. And, in good time, be mistress of my own house.
We celebrated our first marriage a few days ago, under canvas
because of the weather. Jacques Benoît wed Louise Terboulie, with
F. Tripe presiding. It was a joyous occasion with musicians from
“L’Aube”, singing and dancing, and while the food did not vary
significantly from the usual, aside from a pig shot by one of the sailors,
the alcohol owed. With a little practice, my Claude could become a
passable dancer, Maman! One or two of the unmarried men became
a little free with their hands and a scuffle broke out when Madeleine’s
husband felt he needed to defend her honour. But it was all taken
in good humour. Even if Captain Lavaud thinks of us as “ruffians”,
I find the company very agreeable, and an event like this draws us
together as one big family.
I think of you all, in summer still: the hot smells rising from the
paving, bright flowers in the window-boxes and the languid cry of
gulls from the harbour as the fishing boats return from sea.
All my love,
23rd September, 1840.
The potatoes are planted! Lying in neat rows, east to west, across our
land, soil heaped over them as Claude instructed. Now we must be
Sue spent the rest of the day in a frenzy of activity, attacking jobs she
had been intending to do for weeks, avoiding an image of her husband
looking into the eyes of another woman, running his fingers tenderly
over skin that was not hers; pining for her doe eyes – a small part of her
could not take the idea seriously, wanted to make fun of him, diminish
him, ridicule his lust for another; for she could not think of it as love.
She chose activity over reflection. If she were busy enough she would
not be able to think. And if anger threatened to break the surface, the
energy could be put to good use. Until she was too tired to feel or care.
She sighed. This was a new experience, one she had never anticipated.
Infidelity overtook others, not her and Ben. They had promised to love
each other for ever, and had meant it; she still did. Life was not an “excuse
me” waltz to either of them. Although Sue’s love for Ben had changed, she
had not fallen out of love with him, and it had never occurred to her that
he might fall out of love with her. Were there signs she had missed?
Never had Sue felt more able to confront chaos of a physical nature.
She started with Jason’s bedroom, working like a whirlwind: flinging open
windows, getting rid of dirty clothes, stale coffee mugs, plates encrusted
with an assortment of dehydrated foods. Jason would complain, but that
was too bad; if he did not want her messing with his things, he should
keep them tidy. Sue felt numb, her mind strangely dislocated from her
body, her limbs working of their own volition. She watched herself from
somewhere up in the corner of the room, cleaning out his cupboard and
drawers, dusting, vacuuming. Eventually a hollow ache in her stomach
told her it must be well past lunchtime.
The energy which had overtaken her subsided as abruptly as it had
arisen. Sue moved listlessly from fridge to pantry and back. She stood
at the bench, nibbled a Ryvita, sipped tea and gagged. Ben. Her Ben.
The hollowness, she realised, had nothing to do with hunger. She was
empty: a rag doll with no stuffing. She collapsed onto a chair. Her world
had been jolted off its axis, her place in it lost, those in orbit around her
suddenly unknowable. Nothing made sense. Sue shook her head. The
familiar looked unfamiliar, distorted, silently menacing. A deep sadness
enveloped her but she could not cry; she felt dry, shrivelled. She had put
such trust in Ben. Relied on him. Taken him for granted, perhaps. They
had been so much a part of one another. How had he allowed some other
woman to insinuate herself?
Their love was not the stuff of romance novels, Sue supposed, never
had been, if she was honest. But it had been solid, affectionate. It would
be a stretch to say Ben had swept her off her feet all those years ago. He
had been too shy, hiding behind his fringe and his books. So it was Sue
who sought the relationship initially. Still struggling with her mother’s
death, she had felt drawn to Ben, felt a compulsion to be with him; his
quiet certainty about things was reassuring when she was still trying to
make sense of a world she no longer understood. Sue would happen
to be in the varsity library at closing time. ‘You don’t need to walk me
home,’ she would say, knowing Ben would then insist. ‘There’s a good
movie at the Regent,’ she would announce. ‘I’ll give you some tips for
your essay afterwards.’ And Ben would decide he could forego a few
hours of study to be with his tutor. A sisterly peck on the cheek. A casual
brushing of hands.
At first Ben’s interest seemed to be in her intellect rather than her
body. It was refreshing for a while. ‘Most guys are only interested in
one thing,’ she had said to Annie, trying to disguise her impatience. She
tossed her dark poodle curls and stretched her hand-knit sweater low
over rounded hips. She did not understand his reticence. In her fantasies,
he was a sensitive lover, and her skin rippled to his imagined touch as she
lay under the covers in the room in which she had slept since childhood.
The compulsion to be in his company morphed into a compulsion to feel
his fingers on her skin. Her stomach lurched when she saw him; she felt
light-headed, almost ill. The sensations alarmed her; she had seen herself
as a practical young woman, self-sufficient, disdainful of lustful, grappling
youths. Gradually, Sue had encouraged Ben into more intimate realms
and her wish was proven correct: he was a sensitive and considerate lover.
They had learned together.
As early scenes and sensations came to Sue now, in her kitchen, in
middle age, after nearly half a lifetime together, she thought perhaps
she should revise her view of their romance; perhaps Ben had had swept her
off her feet; perhaps that was what the expression meant. And Ben had
seemed to grow in stature in her company, as if she gave him something
he needed, she did not know what, but it somehow had made her feel
And now …
Sue thought she should be weeping, rending her hair, but she could not
squeeze out a tear if she tried. ‘How dare he?’ she shouted, slamming a
fist on the kitchen table. ‘If he’s having an affair, I’ll … I’ll …’ No threat
seemed strong enough. She had been struck out of the blue; she could
see the comic book illustration: Bam! Pow!
Ben had always been so dependable; Sue had needed him to be depend-
able. They had shared an image of him as an authority on all that mattered
in their lives, and had been united on most things. Lately she had been
noticing more and more that her opinion diverged from his, though she
did not always say so. Perhaps, Sue wondered, she might, in the past,
have given in rather than agreed; a thin dividing line there.
Tao eyeballed her across the table, a lime-green, unblinking stare.
‘What do you think, Mister?’ she asked. He squinted.
Sue continued her cleaning spree, but now her mind was busy, developing
a strategy. She had shifted from feeling to planning and was regaining
a sense of control. This poem may be of no consequence, she reasoned,
and confronting Ben might merely risk driving him into another woman’s
arms. Better to wait and see. She knew how to keep her thoughts and
feelings to herself.
That night, Sue said nothing about her discovery. She clamped her
mouth closed on the multitude of questions that demanded answers.
But she found herself in an unfamiliar state of high arousal. Ben’s every
word, every gesture, had acquired new meaning; every sigh, every pause
significance. Their relationship was no longer transparent. In the swirling,
murky depths, unfamiliar shapes were coalescing, not yet decipherable,
and all the more frightening for that. Sue tried to ignore them, but
suddenly they would leap up and threaten to drag her down.
But she carried on as normally as possible.
She steeled herself. ‘How’s work?’ Casually.
Silence. She would give him rope. ‘Anything new?’
‘Ah … no. Nothing to speak of.’ What might there be that he could not
speak of? Ben propped his elbow on the side of the sofa, splayed fingers
a muzzle across his lips. Sue turned away and stared at the television,
registering nothing. What is love? she asked herself. She felt the graze
of Ben’s long fingers burning tracks on her thighs; his index finger in
the notch at the top of her sternum, running down over the beauty spot
marking the midline and into the cleft below – Happy Valley, he used
to call it. Not that they made love with the light on any longer; not for
so many years she had lost count. Perhaps it was for the best. Time was
not kind; at forty-something, they both looked better with clothes on,
no doubt about it.
Doe’s eyes. Coffee coloured skin. Sue shivered. She would bet Ben’s
muse was not over forty.
‘The – er – Department’s beginning-of-year party is coming up.
Saturday,’ Ben said.
‘And?’ There was an edge in her voice.
‘Ah, I don’t suppose …’ Ben ran his hand over his face. ‘Do you – ah
– want to go?’
‘Why wouldn’t I? We always go.’ Was there some reason he did not
want her to go?
‘Well, I just thought … I could go on my own, if you like.’ Ben was
‘That’s very considerate. But, no, I wouldn’t miss it for worlds.’ Sue
could sense Ben’s sidelong glance, but did not allow her gaze to falter from
the television. She was doing a mental roll call of women in the Sociology
Department: their friend, Aroha; Delia and Mel in the office; Lee Lee,
the Asian postgrad from last year; any new postgrads, of course; and all
the Department wives. It could be any or none of them.
It took all Sue’s self-control to stick to her plan not to berate Ben
and demand to know what was happening. ‘Who is she?’ she wanted to
scream. And: ‘Why? Why? Why?’ She wanted to fall on Ben, to beat him
or to ravage him, she was not sure. ‘Don’t you love me any more?’ she
wanted to ask, though uncertain that she wanted to hear the answer. She
had thought they were in this together, for the long haul. For better or
for worse. Forsaking all others. Vows and clichés. But they had meaning.
Sue had upheld her side of the contract. She had given and given, even
when so exhausted she felt she had nothing more to give. Had she not?
She was finding she was no longer certain of anything; she felt she could
no longer trust her own judgement.
Sue thumbed through the telephone book. “Identity Services”, that is
what they called Births, Deaths and Marriages these days. The telephone
rang for so long she was about to hang up.
The previous evening, she had rifled Charlie’s art supplies for a large
piece of thick, white paper, while Ben was secluded in his study and
Charlie she knew not where. Music thumped from Jason’s room – he was
obviously studying. Sue had been reasonably confident that she would
not be disturbed – discovered – in her activity. What she was doing felt
private, personal somehow. Besides, she did not want Ben offering his
advice or criticism. She might get angry and where might that lead? She
wanted to maintain her resolve not to confront him. At least, not now;
She had spread the paper on the dining table and placed beside it a
2B pencil, a soft eraser and a ruler. At the bottom of the page, in the
middle, she wrote her own name and date of birth, and Jayne’s. Above
that, her parents’ names, Sarah Jayne Campbell and Albert Charles
Dujardin Austin, with their birth dates. Beside her mother’s name, Sue
wrote ‘d. 1980’. She connected the names with a series of short black
lines, indicating kinship. Bonds. Attachments.
Her family had always been small; no cousins, uncles or aunts in
New Zealand. Her mother had come from England as a young woman,
not long before she met Sue’s father, and her Dad was an only child.
Sue was startled to realise she was uncertain of her grandparents’ full
names or her grandmothers’ maiden names. She knew something of
her mother’s family: Nana and Pops had come to New Zealand from
England, Tunbridge Wells, after her mother had settled here, leaving her
older brothers behind. Most of Nana’s family still lived in Kent. Nana
had encouraged Sue to correspond with a cousin, Emily, but the pull
of real friends was more compelling. Sue and Ben met Emily and other
relations, four years after they married – their honeymoon, they called
it. Poor Antipodean students, handed on from one household to another.
And, of course, they had spent time with Jayne, who was living, working
and studying in London.
But her father’s parents Sue knew little about, aside from the facts that
they were born here in New Zealand and that her grandfather died in
the Second World War, his wife not long after – of a broken heart, her
father used to say. He had spent the rest of his childhood with an aunt,
now long dead. Sue knew of no other relatives; perhaps there were some
out there. She wished she had talked with her father about the past a few
years ago. But the past had not been of interest then; Sue had been too
firmly rooted in the present.
‘Glenda speaking. How can I help you?’
‘Ah, ah, I’m not sure,’ Sue stammered into the telephone. She should
have planned what she was going to say. ‘I’m wanting to find out about
my family, my ancestors, you know. Find out who I’m related to, back
as far as I can. I thought this might be the place to start.’ Her request
seemed so vague that Sue wanted to apologise and hang up.
‘We have a lot of requests of this nature,’ said Glenda.
Reassured, Sue added in a rush, ‘I think I might be descended from the
French who sailed from Rochefort in 1840 and settled in Akaroa.’
‘How interesting,’ said Glenda, sounding as if she meant it. Sue found
herself smiling. ‘Our archives are not held here. The Central Library
has the registers on microfiche. But you’ll find the early entries are often
‘Oh,’ said Sue.
‘The original documents may have additional bits of information, and
you can order copies for a price.’
‘Thanks so much, Glenda. Now I know where to start,’ said Sue.
Anticipation bubbled in her chest and her step was light as she went
off to meet Annie.
Although they had spoken on the telephone, Sue had not seen Annie
since the negative results from the breast biopsy. Annie held her for a
long time. Tears welled in Sue’s eyes and threatened to spill; the drought
had broken. She brushed them away briskly, terrified that if she started
to cry she might never stop. There seemed so much to cry about; even
the happy things. She could see that Annie, too, was struggling to hold
‘I knew you would be all right,’ said Annie, her tone only half-
‘I didn’t. It almost came as a shock, I was so convinced. But a good
shock – really jolted me. I felt I’d been given a new lease on life.’
‘So what are you going to do with it?’ Annie folded her arms and
‘I thought you would ask that.’ Sue grinned. ‘I’ve started already,’ she
said, teasing. She felt excited, though she could not say exactly why. It
was like being on a treasure hunt, only she had no idea what the treasure
would turn out to be.
‘Come on. Started what?’
‘Researching my genealogy – Dad’s side of the family.’ Sue was like
a schoolchild with a new project, one that she hoped would please her
‘Good for you,’ said Annie. ‘What have you learnt so far?’
What had Sue learnt? She had learnt that her husband might be having
an affair; how could she get beyond that fact? Nothing else had importance
by comparison. Her veneer of excitement drained away, replaced by a
feeling of dread. She wanted to tell Annie, but it felt disloyal; also it felt
as if telling would make it true.
‘What’s wrong? Your face,’ said Annie, reaching out and gripping her
shoulder. ‘What has happened?’
Sue could not hold it in. So much for loyalty. This big amorphous thing
was pushing to come out. ‘He’s having an affair,’ she blurted.
‘Who? Your Dad?’ Annie’s look was disbelieving.
Sue shook her head vigorously, too devastated to find it funny. Her
throat constricted, as if to prevent any more of the thing squeezing out.
‘You’re not making sense, Suzie. Now, from the top …’ Annie waved
her arms like a conductor. Sue allowed herself to be led through her
discovery: Ben’s poem on the computer, her reluctance to confront him,
his reluctance for her to go to the Department party.
‘It might turn out to be nothing, like the cancer scare,’ Annie said.
‘You always think the worst.’
‘I have to,’ said Sue. ‘If I don’t, it might sneak up on me when I’m
‘That’s sheer superstition,’ said Annie.
‘It’s happened before.’ Sue was not to be persuaded. Experience spoke
loudly. She had not let herself believe her mother would die; but she did.
And this tragedy was only a little less monumental. She was being tested
again; she would not be responsible this time.
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