I’ve lived long enough to know I should stay in the background. It’s better that way. The landscape and people have changed so much I wouldn’t know how to be in it these days. But I know how to help behind the scenes.
I live in the converted one bedroom shed up the track from the old weatherboard family bach. I’ve been renting it out to holidaymakers for about fifteen years now. On the shores of Lake Taupo where the waves lap the pumice like a mother cat.
‘Go Alicia!’ My mother used to flap at me with her tea towel, bustling me off the deck from my reading. ‘The beach is right there!’
I’d amble down the short path to the others; the book slapped out of my hand. I exposed myself to the lake air; the whiff of sulphur from the mountains. And the grainy sand scratched my toes. The squeals of my cousins greeted me. None of which I cared for. Red hair and porcelain skin do not suit blue skies and raw sun. My cousins would laugh.
I felt pushed out into that life beyond the deck. It didn’t belong to me; I didn’t fit in. I had to pretend though, until my parents died. Then I scurried back to the bush; the familiar crunch of fern and twigs under my feet and the titter of birds. Making me breathe easy, enclosed once more in her branches.
The place had preserved well, thanks to my mother’s meticulous housekeeping and my father’s no. 8 wire mentality. When I opened the sliding doors to the beach, one glance at the sparkling blue lake told me everything. I could live up the back and rent out the front. They didn’t have the internet then like they do now, but word got out.
‘Look at the view Ian,’ exclaimed the retired Australian wife to her husband. ‘Bloody marvellous that!’
‘Love the retro style.’ The professionals from Auckland. ‘You must make a mint.’
‘Is it right on the beach?’ the students haggled. ‘Awesome!’
The families that came were more worried about fencing or heating or how far to the nearest store. But I’ve never had a cancellation. It’s about getting away from it all. People need this; the chance to whisper along the edge of the sand. Crooning to Mother Nature, ‘I haven’t forgotten you.’
That first year I got everything ready. I baked from my mother’s splattered Edmonds cooking book, sharpened Dad’s axe under the steps of the deck. I fixed up the three fishing rods in the corner, one spool broken. I had the place painted in a light Resene teal, hung fresh curtains and chucked in a new microwave but that was about it. The furniture was still there, frozen in retro fifties time. The three-legged coffee table, crochet rug, Monopoly with some of the pieces missing. The beach chairs were still stacked in the back cupboard and weren’t even rusted. I even found a swing-ball set ready and waiting. I threw open the doors and they all came. Typical kiwi bach. They can’t get enough of them now in all the fancy magazines. Which has been a bonus for me because there’s hardly a weekend it’s empty. And it’s the kind of company I enjoy best. People from a distance.
Except for one couple. They started coming the first year, and carried on year after year. I supposed that’s how I got so attached. I watched Adam and Millie Brooke grow before my eyes.
Millie was fresh out of uni that first time. Her boyfriend Adam and his mates rented the bach. Students wanting to be the first to see the millennium in on the beach. The bunks in the back room made it easy to fit a crowd and I didn’t mind students like a lot of others. I don’t know. There’s something about people that makes me curious, even if I don’t want to be part of them. Millie had that cute elfin blonde cut popular back then. She hung back while the boys got rowdy. She had a quiet steely strength that ploughed through their roughness. She could take a beer as much as them too. The girls flocked and she didn’t notice that she was the one with the power. She was the girl that seems so effortless while the rest of us try to be. She swung her tanned legs on loungers while the boys watched with greedy eyes. She read books to the sounds of Adam’s friends on guitars or bongos. Everyone sprawled over the deck dotted with beer bottles.
Adam rebooked again for the next year. Same crowd, but Millie’s hair was longer, she tossed more salads than beers. They liked the view they said. I was onto a winner, they said.
And the following year they were back, much to my delight. I couldn’t put my finger on it but watching Millie I felt protective, like a distant guardian. Her aloofness around the others either reminded me of me at that age; or did I just envy the love she inspired? The boys doing anything for her, the girls put off by her perfection? I didn’t like their jibes, but I admired how she rose above it, ignoring them with her books and her swims. Cutting into the glass lake like an elegant swan in her yellow bikini.
They came back for the fourth year in a row, but this time, only the two of them. Adam proposed on the deck under a silver moon, soft music and prawns wafting up from the barbeque below. Millie looked so happy, so sure of her future. She had the kind of smile that spread across her face and lit her blue eyes. I guess I’d always desired her blonde smoothness and confidence. Instead I had beady eyes and goose-bump skin. But what you can’t have you can live through others. This was her future and she wanted to leap right into it and who could blame her. A handsome bronzed devil like Adam? With his floppy dark hair and eyes, his T-shirts and broad shoulders? They were a golden pair. The sort that everything worked out for. Boy, did I want that to be true.
When I rented the house out I would sometimes make handmade treats from Mum’s Edmonds book. I also made potpourri, candles, that sort of thing. It gave me something else to do. I didn’t want to join a club or ‘have a pint’ with Pat, Bob or Sue. I’d drive to Turangi for groceries sometimes, where they didn’t know me. But I did agree when the Woman’s Weekly told me that the smell of fresh baking invokes nostalgia. So, I thought, why not do that for my favourite guests? When I’m putting out fresh towels (for those that request a housekeeping option) I’ll bake in the bach. The aroma of fresh cookies will be a nice touch as well as a welcome gift on the bench. It’d be good for business. So, for Adam and Millie, I did that every year until they stopped coming back. And it pains me a little that they stopped coming back. Millie didn’t deserve that.
Engaged that fourth year; married by the fifth, back for the sixth. Only the two of them again. Millie would run up and throw up over the deck which made Adam laugh. ‘Can’t handle your liquor Mills!’
She said nothing. He didn’t know. I did, up there on my perch, watching her throw up in the morning when he’d gone fishing, and other random moments. It was time to get acquainted. You never know when you’re needed.
I didn’t mean to sneak up. I caught her staring out the kitchen window at him down there on a beach chair, rod poking out of the sand. She was a little startled to see me behind but I reassured her. ‘The door was open. You looked faraway.’ I held out some fresh towels. ‘Thought you might need some more of these.’
‘Thank you.’ She frowned. Then held out her hand. ‘I’m Millie. Adam said you live up the back?’
It was my turn to feel startled when I realised we hadn’t met in person before. It was Adam who organised things. I felt I knew so much about her and yet, for her, I hadn’t existed. Until now. I smiled. ‘I’m going into town if you need anything.’
The next summer their baby Kahlia was three months old. I couldn’t help myself. I made myself go into town and buy a little blanket from Louisa’s. It gets cold in the evenings because we are set by the beach. Louisa didn’t even try to make me stay and talk (the townspeople knew better by then). She wrapped it up in a cute little pink bow and I thanked her. I went back to the bach to clean it in preparation for the new addition coming with Adam and Millie.
I wondered where our cane bassinet had ended up. Mum used to wheel it out to the deck when Auntie Colleen kept spitting out babies. Every summer, the invasion from Gisborne descended upon us. I had to share the bunk room and the cousins were all so rowdy and could never sit still. Always whining there was nothing to do. Even after running up and down, swimming, screaming and playing beach cricket. Always tearing my book from my hands. Pulling my corkscrew curls. Shouting ‘Porcelain Piggy’ when the adults weren’t around. The one time I’d shut them up was when I put the broken glass in the bed. Being such savages they jumped and screamed and blood went everywhere. Whatever happened to them? I know the pigtail puller is alive, he sent an email saying he found out I was back and we should catch up, for old times’ sake. I replied you’re all dead to me. After that, nothing.
But I digress. I often do that when I’m cleaning. The mind wanders before I remember to shut it off again. What I meant to say, was that I finally found the cane bassinet under the house. A bit of a brush up from cobwebs made it good as new so I got to work washing and drying sheets for it on the deck. I even tied a ribbon on top and put the baby present inside. Time flies doing stuff. I know it’s not my business and they’d have one already, but they’d appreciate it, wouldn’t they? I wanted to be hospitable.
When they did arrive, they seemed surprised. I’d fallen asleep on the swing seat by the main bedroom—not hard to do on a peaceful Friday evening—when Adam shook me. Of course, I explained and they shook their heads. ‘We couldn’t. It’s a family treasure.’ I laughed and said there’s no family to treasure and they did go quiet at that. Then Millie obliged me a look at the baby, letting me peek under the shade. But be quiet because she’s sleeping and we didn’t get her that way until Tokoroa. I told them how gorgeous Kahlia was and then said, ‘Must be on my way. Let me know if there’s anything.’
Two summers later Millie had Benjamin. Millie was blooming. Adam fussed over her and she glowed every time he did. The kids were quiet. I hardly heard them. Even when Kahlia was at the fussy two-year-old stage they all talk about, she would babble not scream. To be a mother, I sighed. What must that feel like? I could’ve found out I suppose. But I didn’t care to.
I would watch from my deck up the track, which I’d extended so I could keep a better eye on the property. They couldn’t see me but I could see them. I didn’t want to be intrusive.
It was the next year I found Mum’s owls. I don’t know how I’d forgotten but a couple of boxes were in the back wardrobe on the top shelf. They used to make me shudder, their cold dead eyes staring back at you, watching, judging. She’d had them dotted everywhere; porcelain, clay, all kinds of miniatures. Owls keep an eye out, she’d nod as if it were fact. Always there in the shadows of the night, watching. I thought they were spooky as a kid.
You’d think I’d have heard the Brookes arrive in the silence of the hillside bush. The crunch of tyres, the slamming of doors in the still night air; but I didn’t. It wasn’t my fault Kahlia found me the way she did, lying on her bed, owls spread around, crying. She stood in the doorway—curious, not frightened. I sat up and we watched each other with careful eyes.
‘Kahlia!’ I could hear Millie rushing closer. She froze in the doorway when she saw me. It took me a moment to realise and then I put my hand on my chest. ‘Oh my, I’m sorry.’ I jumped off the bed, wiping my eyes furiously, gathering the owls fast. I threw them in a box. ‘Silly things.’ I tried on my host smile (I knew it was good because I’d practised so hard in a mirror for years). ‘Enjoy your room Kahlia!’ I gathered up the owls and left.
Millie looked tired the next year. Curter if I turned up. More jittery if I offered to help. Adam was the same jovial, polite and charming character he always was. Telling her it’s all good honey and maybe Alicia would like a beer he’d chuckle (I always refused). There he was ready for his spot of fishing or drinking. He could’ve helped Millie more I thought. She looked ragged with the kids and he’d be telling her to chill out while he sat on the beach again. Then after the kids went to bed, he’d sneak up behind her on the deck, plant a kiss on her neck and she’d bat him away. ‘What’s the matter?’ he’d slur, on God knows what number beer already. I felt for Millie. I don’t care how hard his marketing job was. The one he kept complaining about, and how he thought they came down here to have a break. They had children for God’s sake. Millie was looking after them while he had his break it seemed.
When I went down to check if they wanted to rebook as usual on my (rare) trek to town, I froze. Adam was standing taut while Millie ran her fingers through her hair. I’d flitted in the way of something. Adam said quietly, ‘We’ll let you know Alicia.’
‘I wish you’d stop walking in on us.’ Millie snapped at me. I felt the dart in my heart. It was my place. But then, I could see she’d been crying.
That next year was quiet. The crash had hit the nation and no one was booking as much. I wrote stories and poems and watched the blue lake rolling onto the beach. The moon would sail across the sky amongst a sea of stars, glistening upon the water. The stars anchored me to my land, myself. The moreporks called for more pork.
I went into town and rolled out my usual lines with Barry or Maude or Caitlyn or Jez and other locals. ‘Can see the mountains today.’ ‘How’s your wife?’ ‘John bloody Key.’ And so on.
I got the internet, finally, and registered on Bookabach. Lots of people wanted it for New Year’s. But the Brookes always had it so I waited. And waited. As the requests crept up I said sorry, it’s booked. ‘You should say so on the site then,’ some of them grumbled. But I couldn’t. I wanted Adam to see it was free. I kept refreshing the page though I knew it was pointless. I can wait, I thought. I’ve got all the time in the world. Finally, an email came. They wanted it! I breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing too bad could’ve come of the tension then.
I confirmed immediately then thought, this time I should go all out to make them welcome. The owl thing had been so stupid and I wanted to make it up to them so they could relax. So they’d never want to leave. I’d missed them.
The day they were due to arrive I made extra biscuits and perfumed the sheets with Dior. It was Millie’s favourite scent. I’d seen it in the bathroom cabinet every year when they went into town. (I know what you’re thinking, but it’s nice to see the place lived in. It came alive and I would go down and soak it up, breathing in the scent of family and life around me, then go back to the shed). But this year I wouldn’t do any of that. I felt they kinda knew anyway. Judging how they’d look around the place when they got back from the movies or whatever. Did you move the remote Millie, did you tidy the colouring books up Adam?
I put fresh rock daisies in vases because Millie had raved over them once. And I found a little watercolour of an owl in a junk shop for Kahlia. I bought it and framed it because once, on the beach, I’d seen them and I asked Kahlia if she liked owls. She’d said oh so politely, ‘Yes.’ And Millie had smiled and grabbed the little angel’s hand. ‘We’d better head back now,’ she’d said before I could ask anything else. But that was okay, a mother had other things to be getting on with. I couldn’t wait to see them all again, because let’s be honest, it does get a little lonely even for a hermit like me.
I didn’t want to be there again when they arrived of course so I made sure I was back home well before. I saw Adam walk up the deck to get the key for the sliding door and waited for the others to follow. But no one did. He let himself inside and I heard nothing. He must’ve opened the back door for them. I leaned out. He came out onto the deck again and stretched his hands behind his head, surveying the view. I remembered when he first came how he was a bronzed dark haired young man. Now his hairline was receding and his belly expanding.
And then she stepped out, blonde and lanky, all tan and leg and bikini. At first, I thought ‘Wow Millie, you’ve lost a lot of weight!’ And then my stomach plummeted. That wasn’t Millie. Who was this creature wrapping her arms around Adam’s shoulders? And it hit home. What are you doing Adam? I sucked in my breath. The air was sharp and cold now. I went inside and slammed my door. This was my home and he was tainting it.
I kept an eye out as they stayed. All fancy wine and kissing and soft music like he used to treat Millie. And then she left.
A day later, I was walking along the beach and there was Millie! I felt shocked all over again.
‘Hi Alicia.’ She looked taut, drawn, more lines drawn across that golden face. She was helping Kahlia and Ben shovel sand into buckets for sandcastles, five and six years old now. ‘Hope Adam wasn’t too noisy with the boys.’
I didn’t know what to say. So I said, ‘I hope you like the owl. They keep an eye on everything.’
Millie frowned. ‘I’m sure.’
I smiled at the kids and carried on my way, my blood pumping. That bastard.
Adam booked a few more weekends throughout that year. Each time I accepted, hoping so much for Millie to be with him but she wasn’t. The girls were each different but all the same. I got such a tight feeling in my stomach when I saw him this way.
It was the once but I felt it my duty. When the last girl left, I came down to the bach and spread the photos on the kitchen bench for him to see. He froze. ‘I have eyes,’ I said. ‘And copies.’
His eyes went wild. ‘What the fuck.’
‘Millie deserves better.’ I said. ‘I want you to look after her.’
‘This is none of your goddamn business you psycho and we won’t be coming back here again.’
‘You should come back Adam.’ I touched the photographs. ‘You have such a wonderful family and you wouldn’t want to destroy it.’
New Year’s rolled around again. The moon hung over the lake, shunting sharp shards of light off the crested waves. The kids were in bed, the scent of the barbeque from earlier wafting up my way, turning to ash. Adam and Millie on the deck. Why would he come back after that you say? Because I wanted Millie to have her life back again. I wanted the pieces of their family to be whole. I wanted what I thought was best. And he had to agree if he didn’t want her to see the photos.
But they weren’t the same. Millie’s blonde hair longer and thinner than before. Her bones jutting against middle aged skin. She refused to look at him, gazing out into the black void off the deck. She had the look of most of us at that age; when fairy tales are finally over. Where was my beautiful princess?
And Adam, hair thinning, thickening around his middle. No longer a surfer hunk, but an aging pervert chasing tail. He paced the deck talking too loud. She kept staring out ahead, flicking her hair when he especially annoyed her. He looked frightened to be there but too scared not to be there, and all because of me.
What had become of them? Why had they become that couple? There’s too many of them. Last ditch marriages hoping the sun would soak up their troubles. They sat stony and silent on their phones next to each other on the sand. Couples laughing too loud. Pretending fancy wine and cheese made their problems go away. They came once, never again. But these two, I’d had such high hopes. They were now an ordinary middle aged couple, spreading what’s left too thin.
And then he had to go and confess it all on the deck. Millie turned to him and said so soft (I could hear because sound travels so well up the water), ‘Fuck you.’ And that was that. The dream was over.
The last time I saw Millie was the next day when I went to check on her. She seemed so relaxed and relieved despite the fact Adam had left the night before. He’d slammed the back door yelling loud enough to wake me had I been asleep and not watching. He trekked up the path that went past my converted shed, heading for the lookout.
I’d wanted to be there, a small comfort of some sort, knowing what I knew. Adam had never even made it past my house. I had been ready for him. I unpacked my cleaning equipment while she packed the car. ‘Thank you,’ she said as she hefted the last bag I handed to her.
She saw Dad’s axe leaning against the steps. ‘Been doing some chopping?’
I twitched. ‘A little.’ I wanted to reach out and stroke her back or something. ‘I like to look after my guests,’ was all I said. It was the least I could do. But she needed to leave now.
I’m a survivor, and I could see that Millie was too. I saw it in the strength she had as a young lass and that last day the spark was back. She didn’t need me anymore. I’d done my bit.
I started on the back room after she drove away. I saw the owl painting, its beady, wise eyes watching me dust, slanted to the left. I straightened it and thought, I guess owls aren’t so bad after all. I should bring Mum’s ones back down here. They’d make the place so pretty, dotted all about for the next family. There’s got to be another one out there somewhere that I can help somehow. I’d like to make them feel welcome.