Crows Nest. Down Home – Present Day – Pete.
I lift the worn, leather bound diary to my nose, randomly open the pages and bury my face inside the ancient aroma of the past. I inhale, close my eyes, breathing in the faint scent of Ava, my English grandmother who died five years ago. Her laughter lingers inside my head as I read the scribbled words. As I turn the pages, her writing triggers memories of my grandfather, too. A groundswell of sadness at his recent passing makes me close the book, bringing me back to the present. Both my grandparents are gone and now their house is mine, inherited along with their history, a childhood unlike mine, lived with the constant threat of enemy attack.
I don’t know where to start. It’s incredible how much old junk my grandfather kept. Standing in his office, I pull out drawers full of papers. Filing cabinets groan under the weight of folders crammed with yellowing documents and a two-door cupboard in the spare bedroom is jammed full of photo albums. It’s tempting to look through them too, but I need to get a handle on how long this job is going to take.
Pulling down the ladder to the attic trap door, I find more boxes of everything imaginable. Old wooden crates with souvenirs from overseas trips, clothing he hasn’t worn for years. They stacked toys I played with as a child in a cluttered pile in the far corner. I’m never going to get through all this stuff. He’s even kept every single passport and identity card he ever had. It’s disconcerting to see my name on these old documents, and it gives me the creeps to see it on my grandfather’s death certificate too. Pieter Paul Verberne. In Dutch tradition, I am named after my grandfather, but everyone who knows me calls me Pete.
I naively imagined clearing this place out over the weekend. But now I can see there’s no way. It’s going to take at least a month. I fleetingly think about a bonfire in the backyard. A more efficient way of disposal, but a warning of fire bans and illegal burning dampens my enthusiasm.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just old junk. There are no rusted car parts and rubbish stacked everywhere, like those hoarders you see on television. Grandpa stored his tools with care or hung them on the wall in measured size-sequences from small to large, perfectly positioned above his wide timber workbench. Ordered and organised. I always appreciated his attention to detail. He was fastidious, although after Gramma Ava died five years ago, he lost all motivation. Some of the light faded from his watery eyes and in moments when he was unaware, I watched his expression crumple. He would look flat, drained and not himself. It’s understandable after sixty-four years of marriage.
The thought of living with a woman all those years makes me shiver. Hell, pity the poor woman too. I’m not so easy to live with either. After my divorce last year, I’ve been toying with changing my whole life. I want to challenge myself and do something different. I need to feel alive instead of sleepwalking through every dreary day. It was easy to resign my day job, but harder to explain to friends and family about taking a year off.
Without any warning, a heart attack took Grandpa’s life. He had resisted moving into an old-age facility to play out his last months in God’s waiting room; instead, he stayed here in this rambling bungalow. His passing relieved some part of me. It was quick and painless for him. But it’s sad to be here in his home without him prattling away in the background, always joking and quick to laugh.
I opted to clear his house and arrange for painting and renovations. I’ve only been in this small town for a week and I’m already thinking of staying longer. It’s no hardship for me to remain in this beautiful part of older Takutairua, about fifteen kilometres up the coast from Matakana. I’ve worked overseas on oil rigs and on building sites but living in my grandparents’ old house links me with my true self. I feel grounded somehow. In the past twenty years, I have barely been here, apart from special family gatherings and birthdays. I guess regret comes with turning forty. I still want to shake my head when I think about the time I’ve wasted with stupid stuff. Being back here is bringing the pleasures of my childhood into sharp relief. All the excitement and plans I had growing up. Maybe I can tap into my sense of purpose and come alive again.
The familiarity of this home, knowing the floor plan and where everything is, gives me some security. I can comfortably sleepwalk to the kitchen and find the fridge. Memories of a charmed childhood float in and out of my consciousness. A blissful time when my grandparents talked and listened in equal measure. I learned so much about car engines, carpentry, and practical knots to tie up fishing boats—things my grandfather taught me with pleasure and satisfaction. I stroll into the lounge and can hear his voice telling me how to hook a fish or trap a possum. Sometimes Gramma’s voice calls out, ‘Lunch is ready,’ and I walk to the empty Formica and chrome kitchen table expecting hot melted cheese on top of baked beans with toast waiting for me on a large floral dinner plate. Years of dust and disuse are now obvious. My childhood memories ebb and flow like the tide, and I’m never sure if the next wave will be a good one to ride or one to avoid. I’m an only child and there are a few cousins I could share these thoughts with, but none of them live in New Zealand anymore.
This classic timber bungalow with grey shiplap boards and white window trim belongs to me now after my grandparents signed it over in their last Will. My original plan was to redecorate, update the bathroom and kitchen, then flick it. The proceeds could finance my twelve months of job freedom. I could rent in the Cooks and bask in the sun while working on the new book I’ve always dreamed of writing.
It’s only been seven nights and I’m already having second thoughts about selling. Small-town living appeals to me. This is my first chance to stay in the country long enough to let the city noise and vibration cease and reconnect with the fresh country air, soaking up the calm of the blossoming fruit trees, the electric green grass and the silence of peace. Beautiful. I’m realising most of my life I operated outside myself, going along with the mad rush to pay the bills with no passion for life. I’m getting what the old boy meant when he said, Feel the earth between your toes while you reach for the sky. It made little sense to me. Did he mean a kind of paranormal association? I’d snorted with mild derision and talked about my first job earning big money on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
This house is the first one my grandparents built after emigrating to New Zealand. They lived in renters until they could build their own. I can’t quite recall what Gramma told me, but they moved into their new home on the same day Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK in 1963.
The house sits comfortably on its own grassy knoll overlooking the ocean, and Takutairua village remains squashed along its shoreline. A large Victorian replica veranda wraps around two sides, with wrought-iron railings and fancy curled details framing the panoramic view. I enjoyed many early morning coffees and easy evening drinks in this cheerful space, now vacated by the grandparents who taught me about the meaning of true love.
It’s an old house, but in pretty good nick. The new exterior paintwork is perfect, only completed about a year ago. I can still hear Grandpa complaining about three coats not being enough. He hated wasting money paying for an unnecessary fourth lick of paint. It’s the interior that needs upgrading, and I’ve already asked a couple of local builders for quotes.
I could scale it back, undertake a few vital jobs like the shower, and ignore the complete bathroom overhaul until later. If I’m going to stay here, replacing the colourful, bold patterned carpet with something plain and neutral would suffice. Updating the kitchen is still a priority. I could tone it down, leave some of the cosmetic decorating until I’ve decided about living here permanently. The heavily scroll-patterned wallpaper in the lounge needs to go. It suffocates me every time I look at it.
I can do a lot of this work myself. Stay here for twelve months and tick off all the things I can do, stripping, Gibbing, even try my hand at a bit of plastering. Even if I am only a second-generation Kiwi, DIY is still in my DNA. A light sanding afterwards will camouflage the cockups. I chuckle to myself. It’s a plan. It’s more than I had this morning when I woke up and swallowed my first mug of coffee. I could become a handyman around the village and earn a few bucks to keep me in beer.
Like Grandpa, I’ve always been pragmatic. I learned a lot about building and fixing things from him. I can still hear his voice during summer holidays. ‘It’s a crying shame to pay someone else to do a man’s job. If you’re a real man, you’ll do these things for yourself.’ He had a point and I now understand what he meant as I lurch towards the big four zero with no kids, no wife, and no proper home. Then Grandpa came to the rescue. The timing was just right, and my generous grandparents gifted an escape hatch. I grabbed the house with both hands, so why sell? I could live here for the next twelve months bring.
At any rate, I need to unpack and sort all this junk. Yanking the tape from across the top of the first box, I flip open the lid, exposing a mother lode of ancient documents and an old shoe box full to the brim with black and white photos. I scan through a few but only recognise my grandparents in their teenage years. There’s one photo of my father at three years old. His soft blond hair falls forward as he holds the handle of a cart, denim dungarees buckled at the front over a checked collared shirt. Though I’ll have to ask Dad. A blond, blue-eyed kid in monochrome could be just about anyone.
Turning the page, my eyes are attracted to a photo of a young girl in a simple felt hat with shoulder-length dark hair peeking out from underneath the brim. In pencil, on the white edge framing of the old black-and-white photo, is the date and the name of my grandmother. Ava Sadler, 1939. She must be seven or eight years old. Her face is sad and lost. I can’t help staring at the picture. What’s going on in this sorrowful little child’s life?
After closing the shoe box, I carefully place it on the broad boards of the attic floor. Yesterday I rigged up a light bulb, but a single light is barely enough to see a third of this crowded space. I need to make another plan. I pull out some paper folders, notebooks, and loose pages. There’s a beautiful black feather pressed between a folded blank piece of paper. I hold the paper closer to the light and can make out a fine pencilled word, Niko. The smooth feather shimmers with dark greens and purples as I tilt it backwards and forwards under the electric light.
I need to carry these ancient treasures downstairs. Reaching deeper along the side of the cardboard box, I feel the binding of several books with my fingertips. I struggle to lift one out from underneath the weight of the other documents. It’s a leather-bound diary. I carefully open the first page. It creaks almost like an aching joint. ‘1938’ is written in a child’s hand. But I can’t make any sense of the words. It’s written in faded pencil and in a foreign language, probably Dutch. It looks like the scribbles covering most of the other loose handwritten pages. My father was always too busy to teach me his mother tongue. Peering closely, I can half understand some of the old identity documents and a few official papers written in German, I guess. Sadly, English is all I can fully comprehend.
I carefully turn a few pages. The precise cursive writing in navy-blue ink moves like a beautiful, printed fabric billowing in a spring breeze. The tail and top strokes almost dance to their own musical pattern across the old pages. Children’s crayon drawings cover the back of several pages of the old, typed text. They are pages my Gramma Ava typed, describing some of her childhood memories. Maybe I drew the pictures on the back of her diary notes, but I have no recollection of making these crayon marks.
Another small booklet catches my attention and I flick through the fragile pages. Abruptly I freeze at the sight of a single word leaping off the third page: Verboden. I know this word means forbidden.
Milk Run – London 1938 – Ava
I’m scared and walk slowly around the front of the huge brown horse. It stomps its front hoof and snorts at me.
‘Hurry Ava,’ Dad says. ‘We haven’t got all day.’
Walking further away from the angry horse, I move to the side of the milk cart while the horse snorts again, so loudly I jump with a shriek.
Standing behind me, Dad picks me up and I cling to his neck. The horse can’t hurt me now.
Most mornings, I help my father give milk bottles to the houses in the streets near our home. Everybody is still asleep on this misty morning. The fog is so thick in the darkness that I can hardly see the streetlamps and the long lines of brick houses on each side of the cobbled streets. I like to play in these same streets with other children in the summer sunshine. I feel safe and I know the neighbours around us. Everybody is good and this is all I’ve ever known.
Dad lifts me up under my arms and slides me onto the wooden bench, straightening out my smocked floral dress. I sit up straight and proud next to my dad on his horse-drawn milk cart. I love sitting with him. I can almost touch the tail of the horse pulling the loaded wagon in front of us. It’s fun rocking on the seat and then stopping for Dad to jump from the cart and place bottles of milk on every doorstep.
After the milk run is finished my father smiles and holds the reins in his hands as we head back to the milk factory on the edge of the city of London.
‘Listen Ava, your mum is very sick and has to go to hospital,’ he says. ‘It’s far away from where we live. You are going to stay in a lovely home where you will be properly cared for with lots of other children.’ He turns his head to glance at me and his blue eyes look uneasy.
‘But Dad, you look after me just fine,’ I say, trying to understand his strange words.
Later in the afternoon, my father helps me into my favourite dress and brushes my black curly hair into a ponytail. We travel together by train to the place where I must stay. I usually like riding on trains. The hum and rattle of the wheels on the tracks usually makes me happy but today every moment traveling further away from home fills me with fear.
‘Will you come back to get me?’ I ask as we walk from the train station up the path to an old double-storey brick house.
‘Of course, Ava.’ He isn’t smiling anymore and can’t pretend to be happy. ‘I’m not sure how long you will be staying here. It depends on how quickly Mummy gets better.’
‘Oh.’ I look at my brown buckle shoes. ‘I see.’
There’s a big sign on the wall where the gate opens into the garden. It’s saying, Children’s Care Home. I can read it but what does it mean? My father rings the doorbell as we stand in front of the tall wooden door. A lady wearing glasses shakes my father’s hand and says her name. She then bends down to me.
‘Who do we have here?’ she says.
I’m too scared to speak and my mother always tells me not to speak to strangers.
‘Come on, darling’ Dad sounds angry. ‘Tell the nice lady your name.’
A few minutes later I kiss Dad’s cheek goodbye and walk around the lovely garden with masses of colourful flowers growing everywhere. I lean into the patch of lavender where the bees buzz lazily in the midday warmth. But I’m not frightened anymore. I take a deep breath, sucking in their scent, and the clean, fresh purple tickles my nose. My mother loves lavender, so that must be the reason I do too. There are white roses with a perfume that makes me smile. If only I could capture it on my hanky and let my mother smell it too. She would get better more quickly, I’m sure, all the germs and bad sickness will go away, and I could stay with my mum.
There are hundreds of tiny flowers and I run my hand softly over their budding heads. The rose petals are as silky-soft as my mother’s lips kissing me good night. Even now, I feel her love through the petals stroking my fingertips. Other little children are playing in the garden before being called inside and I follow them into the kitchen.
After a few days, Dad arrives and takes me home again. When my father unlocks the front door, I race inside to my mum who is sitting on the floral armchair in the living room.
‘I played in the garden with lots of flowers. But I was sad and missed you and Dad. It was a long time. The flowers were beautiful.’
‘Darling, that’s wonderful. You had a good time?’
‘Yes. The other children were friendly, too. We played hide-and-seek.’
Mum seems well, a little pale and thin, maybe. But I’m glad she is better now.
When she reaches across to hug me tightly, I hold her face in both my hands and give her a big kiss on both cheeks. She laughs and kisses me back.
Some months later I am sick in a hospital bed surrounded by lots of other children in a long room. We are all covered in rashes. My throat burns and my stomach hurts. The other children have the same sickness. Scarlet fever, Dad told me, and he explained I must do exactly what I am told by the nurses because it’s very dangerous.
The other children have the same sickness. Scarlet fever, Dad told me, and he explained I must do exactly what I am told by the nurses because it’s very dangerous.
Is Mum coming to see me?’
‘My little darling. Mum wants to visit but we both agreed it’s too risky. We don’t want her getting ill again, do we?’
‘Please take me home, Dad,’ I plead.
He frowns and his drawn face looks like his football team lost the finals. ‘You need to get better first, Ava.’
‘I am better. But I’m scared. Another child died last night. I won’t die, will I?’
‘No, of course not.’ He inhales deeply. ‘Thank heavens you’re already on the mend with the new medicine called penicillin doing the trick.’
After three-weeks, I am lucky enough to go home.
Four weeks later, it’s my eighth birthday, and Aunt Connie visits with my two cousins Pam and Joan for afternoon tea. Dad guards the door and won’t let me into the sitting room.
‘Ava, you mustn’t spoil the surprise now.’ His eyes dance, heightening my excitement.
Breathless, I can’t help giggling and skipping down the hallway. Maybe the surprise is a little kitten or a puppy. Mum won’t let me have one until I am old enough to care for it, but maybe that’s why everyone is so excited. Perhaps Dad convinced her to give me a pet. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cat or a dog. Secretly, I hope it’s a puppy. I will throw balls for her, and we will go for lots of walks. That’s the trouble, really. They won’t let me walk alone. I won’t be alone though, not if my new dog comes with me to the park. I’m being silly. It can’t be a pet. Not yet. It’s probably a new dress. I will try to be patient. It’s a virtue, Dad says.
When my cousins arrive with Aunt Connie at two o’clock, they hand me a parcel, wrapped in brown paper with lots of lovely pictures Pam and Joan have drawn on it for me. I open it up, carefully folding the beautiful paper and ribbon to save for someone else’s birthday gift.
‘Thank you so much,’ I say, clutching the new colouring-in book and the four coloured crayons. A beautiful handmade card is tucked inside, covered in flowers and butterflies with big hearts and kisses. I hug them all close and can’t wait to colour in the pictures
‘I overhear Aunt Connie talking to Dad about my mother. ‘How’s Vida doing. Any change?
I tilt my face to watch the back of my father’s head and I see his shoulders drop, his head look down. ‘She’s no better,’ he says. But Mum will get better. She told me she will. She just needs to rest and look after herself. My father lifts his head, exchanges a look with my aunt and he turns around.
‘Ava!’ He smiles and claps his hands together. ‘Now for the big surprise,’ Dad says, beaming at me. ‘Prepare yourself, Ava, to be amazed at this special gift waiting for you.
Mum stands behind me, her arms draped over my shoulders. She leans down close to my left ear. ‘Ava darling, happy of the happiest birthdays and may all your wishes come true.’
Dad clutches the doorknob and waits, grinning, making me want to squeal, and then he swings the door open. In the middle of the dining room table sits a glass bowl with a little, green-leafed tree standing in the centre. There are several beautiful butterflies of many colours resting on the tiny branches, their wings opening and closing. I gasp with delight and can barely speak at the amazing spectacle. Happiness and excitement courses through every limb. This is the happiest I’ve ever been.
One afternoon, my dad gets a very important letter. The Prime Minister and the Queen have asked him to re-join the army to help save us from our wicked enemies. Dad was a teenager in the army when the Great War started, but I wasn’t born then.
Before this new war begins, Mum takes me to a parade, and I wave and smile at my dad in his uniform with shiny brass buttons twinkling in the sunlight. He wears a smart jacket, jodhpurs and tall leather boots while riding a black horse like other soldiers trotting down the main street. Everyone crowds the sides of the cobbled road, cheering and waving flags, cotton handkerchiefs or coloured scarves. An army brass band marches behind them, beating out happy songs. I clap my hands, smiling and almost jump out of my skin..
Mum and I walk beside the parading troops to the nearby railway station to say goodbye to Dad and all the other soldiers. There is a crush of people on the platform, more than I’ve ever seen before. There is no more music and cheering. The crowd is silent apart from a few whimpers from the wives and mothers left standing on the platform.
My father reaches us and kisses and hugs my mother and me. I cling to him, my arms tightly gripping his neck. I don’t want to let him go. My mother and father are heartbroken. They don’t see me watching them. He whispers something in Mum’s ear, but I can’t make out what he is saying. She is crying now, her cheeks are wet with tears, as if a stop bank has broken and her tears push past the floodgates. Nothing can stop her weeping. He brushes away tears from her face with a gloved hand, but it makes no difference. The tears keep silently falling from her sad, brown eyes.
I am sad too, but I’m not sure why. Dad will be back in a few days, though no one knows for certain when the war will end, and he will be home again. I heard our neighbour telling Mum it wouldn’t last longer than a few months.
As the train leaves, I clutch tightly onto my mother’s hand and tell her over and over not to worry. ‘Dad will be home soon. You’ll see, Mum.’
We walk home in silence. My mum blows her nose now and again, but I say nothing. I’m thinking about my dad and the funny things he says to make us laugh. Just this morning before he left for the train station, he walked through the kitchen to the toilet saying, just off to shake hands with the unemployed. I grin to myself remembering how he didn’t want us to be sad.
Once inside the front door, we remove our hats and coats, and Mum makes us both a cup of tea. Mine has lots of milk. She gets up from the table and walks into the lounge, fetching an old photo album from the sideboard drawer. She pages through the album and pulls a photograph from its corner-mounts, staring at their black and white wedding photograph. My mother is smiling and happy, everyone is pleased and delighted in the photograph, but Mum is sad now.
‘I look sideways at her, and she has stopped crying, though still looks unhappy. ‘What’s wrong, Mum?’
Her bottom lip trembles as she stares up at the ceiling. Is she praying? She takes a deep breath and gives me a weak smile.
‘It’s the war, darling. I worry about your dad, but I know he is strong and clever. He’ll be all right and come home to us.‘When?’ I frown, glancing at the photo in her hand. Mum has a wedding veil with a small flat hat on her head. She is holding a tiny bouquet with her arm looped through my father’s. He holds his army hat in his other hand, dressed in full uniform with riding breeches, but the horse is not there. They both look happy. Mum is beautiful with smooth dark hair in a smart bob and my father is tall, handsome with those smiling blue eyes I know so well.
‘It won’t be long,’ Mum says. ‘Maybe a few weeks or a couple of months. That’s what everyone’s saying.’
‘What’s wrong then? He won’t be gone too long.’
‘It’s the war,’ she says, her words hesitant. ‘The war against Germany has started and your dad has gone to France to fight the enemies.’
Don’t worry, Mum. He’ll be home soon.’