Liesl Nunns completed a doctorate in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford in 2011. Her work has been published in Southerly, Hawai’i Review, Two Thirds North, Print-Oriented Bastards, Ember, Terrain.org, and Hippocampus Magazine. She lives in Wellington.
“Words are amongst the earliest things I remember caring about. It is hugely reassuring that I will never write as well I would like, nor understand language as I would wish; what would life be like without those constant mysteries?”
For The Catching
Saturday, and Neal is mowing the lawn again. He’s punishing the imaginary growth that has sprouted since Tuesday’s efforts. He treads along behind the push mower in his overalls and hat. Though generally an elegant man, today he looks for all the world like a farmer searching with his water divining stick.
I take my brother a tumbler of water as the first of the morning warmth hits. With lemon and mint, to show love.
“This warm and wet spring, eh,” he nods at the water, to show thanks. “This grass. Growing like wild-fire.”
That spreads, rather than grows. But the grass has indeed spread this week, temporally rather than spatially, so that I remain here in the present and he paces further back into the past.
“I’ll be inside.”
And he nods again and gets back to it. The blades of Neal’s push mower churn up the silence that’s otherwise heavy on that green square between the house and the beach.
The silence fell after the plane did.
My brother and I moved into the little beachfront house together when I was sixty-one and Neal was fifty-five. Ellen had died, quickly and thoroughly, like a deletion, some ten years earlier. It wasn’t that he wasn’t coping, or that there were financial factors; I simply asked him one day, over lunch, and he said yes, just as simply. It was the first day of his early retirement. My brother, the solemn and successful barrister. (Me, the potter/librarian/prison volunteer/cartoonist/bit of everything.) We were celebrating, ostensibly. We sat there quietly with our wine, in his conservatory, watching the skipping whitecaps on Wellington harbour. I asked him “What now?” – now that he had decided his pile of gold and his pile of remaining time had reached that critical balance. And he didn’t seem sure.
“Well, I’m thinking of living the old lady life a bit.” I tilted the sun into my gewürtztraminer. “You could come be an old man with me. If I’m going to learn to make a Victoria sponge, someone should be there to eat it.”
It was a decision I made only as I said it. It was a response to the emptiness of that house. A rescue impulse. We’d never spoken about love easily, my brother and I, and that was what I was saying.
We talked about the Kapiti Coast. We talked about lawn bowls, and collecting driftwood, and getting angry over boy racers. We talked about a little house. Jokingly, then fondly, and then speculatively. I think I felt relief coming from him. Relief at scaling back, standing still, letting go. He’d been holding his breath, as well as everything else.
We both sold our homes in the city. He, his grand Khandallah home, and I, my creaking little Island Bay villa. With his wife’s death, his house had long been empty of its most prized possession and of the expectation of more treasures to come. For me, standing in my hallway amongst those rolls of bubble wrap, I was packing up everything I had and had ever anticipated having. There was no dead husband, no missing children. As my busy twenties had, without my noticing, become my even busier thirties and forties, I had made a series of decisions that meant I was just me, alone. Somewhere, somehow, those decisions. I don’t remember them and don’t think I ever knew that that was what they were. I’d had friends and careers, and committees, and projects, and lovers, and crafts, and hobbies, and travel. So much of so many things, and there they were all around me, in dusty piles.
My neighbour and newly-dearest friend, Angela, brought gin and we sat in my backyard, in its last hours of being my backyard. A tūī in the kōwhai tree adjusted the beeps and static of its birdsong as we talked about the future. Such a proud, solitary bird: I told Angela that I’d fancy coming back as a tūī. A moving truck had pulled up a year ago and there had been Angela. She, too, was alone. Similar age, similar height, similar shape, and, to my surprise, my kind of woman. Sharp, curious, and without vanity. We could have ignored each other politely, like so many neighbours. But she leaned over my fence and asked if she could steal some of my lavender to brighten up her kitchen ‘until it felt like hers’. We both had a precious and compact world that was ours and we both felt it mistaken by others for loneliness and regret. So much of so many things, Angela knew, too.
We drank our gin together amongst the lavender and felt sentimental, even though we’d see each other again. I wasn’t going far.
And so my own moving truck arrived, and Neal and I moved away. Our Paraparaumu home became filled with my Peruvian mementos and recycled tea-towel quilts and sets of handcrafted earthenware this-and-thats, while Neal’s personality took up shared space in succinct and stylish touches. A telescope in one sunny corner, golf clubs in the garage, an espresso machine on the kitchen bench. Ellen’s face stayed in his bedroom.
But we laughed together, cooked together, argued about the crossword together and sometimes even sang together. Sam Cooke and Nanci Griffith and Pete Seeger, while we made omelettes. Ten months, happy months, of the wind and the sun and the beach. My brother was waking up from the disappointment of his solitude.
But last Sunday, the plane crashed. Severe turbulence had ripped wing from plane. A freak accident. (That is what the paper will say two years from now, quoting the Civil Aviation Authority’s report. I will read it twice, standing at the gate. And then I will walk the paper down the street to the playground, where two loafing teenagers will sneer at me—they see a crazy old lady out in her slippers—and I will quickly throw the paper into the rubbish bin and hurry home. Neal will ring the Dominion Post and complain about our paper never arriving that day, and I will pour my guilt into a fruitcake. Thick slabs of brandied guilt, to devour together in the afternoon sun.)
Monday morning. The first thing was a hairclip. A clear plastic bow, rigid and see-through, the colour of cough mixture. The metal clip caught the morning light as I took my coffee on the deck. It tickled my eye, and I moved my head so that the light wouldn’t catch it the same. I drank my coffee and tried to think of what I needed to do that day. But the S.O.S. of reflected light kept startling my sleepy eyes and interrupting my thoughts, so I went to root out the cause of the problem. And there it was, in a flowerpot. Its pink folds were still shiny, like a boiled lolly. It hadn’t been there long.
Neal’s head appeared over the sand dunes that ruffle the end of the lawn. I waved good morning, as I did every day when he returned from his walk, but he didn’t wave back that day. He was grave, head down.
“Good walk?” I asked, as he got near the deck.
“There’s been an accident.”
“On the beach?”
“Yesterday afternoon,” he shook his head. “A microlight went down.”
Bearing the news home had clearly been a heavy burden for him. He looked shaken, pale. I took his arm and nudged him towards a seat. I gave him my coffee cup, still almost full. “Where did it go down? Were people hurt?”
He stared out to the beach, fussing his wedding band round and round his finger. “I saw Bill Earle on my walk. He told me about it. We didn’t watch the news last night, remember? Haven’t had the radio on.”
“What did Bill say about it?”
“Most of the plane came down in the trucking yard. A complete wreck. They’ve cordoned it all off. The police, I guess. Bill said they took the pilot’s body away.”
Paraparaumu is a small town. Mostly retirees. Young families, first-time home-buyers, commuting into Wellington. Hippies. Writers. Vegetable growers. Everybody didn’t know each other, but there were sub-sets in which everybody knew each other. Despite his youth, Neal is well established in the loop of 60+ men who walk and play golf and have a beer on Friday afternoons. Bill Earle, that morning’s informant, belongs to a part of Neal’s life that isn’t mine. He has his crowd, and I have mine.
“But there was a little girl, too.” Neal’s voice cracked a little. “They haven’t found her. She must have been … they think she was … she was pulled out of the plane. Before it crashed. Fell out. Sucked out. I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t have a seatbelt on?”
He had to stop himself babbling on. I reached over the table and put my hand on his arm. He patted my hand gratefully. And then he felt that my last two fingers were curled around something I held in my palm. He looked down, distracted, surprised at the pink peeping out.
“What have you got there?”
I had forgotten that I was holding it. “Oh, just a little kid’s hairclip. Found it over there.” He gave me the strangest look. One of shock.
I shrugged. “I guess the wind blew it in there. Or the neighbour’s dog was probably burying its loot last night.”
He sat still, gaping at it in horror.
“Don’t worry, Neal,” I laughed. “I’m hardly going to start wearing it.”
He snapped up out of his chair. “We have to give this to the police.”
But he went to his room, and I didn’t see him all morning.
That little girl went down in our backyard, regardless of whether she did or not. The idea of her had landed and, in doing so, had assumed the broken half-shape of the baby’s ghost. Neal couldn’t clear the dead from the lawn, no matter how much he mowed it.
The baby had gone from darkness to darkness, without tasting the opportunities of the light. Ellen had taken her ill-fated burden with her before she could deposit it into the safe, waiting hands of Neal. Ellen, vibrating taut with golden life, humming with beauty and enthusiasm. As I watch Neal on his pristine lawn, I think of her kneeling in her garden. Flowers grew in avid profusion in every direction, a petalled symphony. I think of her like that, busy and laughing and scuffed up around her pretty edges. She rarely stayed still, congenital heart condition or not, and then pregnancy or not. She was thirty-nine. It was, for them, a miracle baby. Far from slowing her down, the excitement had sped her up. And she was on one of her many bounding walks along Wellington’s Skyline track − the last walk, she said, before she surrendered to her burgeoning belly − when the end jumped up to meet her.
I know that Neal tormented himself with wondering how long those tiny budding lungs continued to flutter as the cursed heart of the mother spasmed and stilled and stopped. How long alone and trapped? No, I don’t know that he thought about that. It was what I thought about, as I watched his face full of grief. It tormented me in those first days after a stranger found Ellen’s cold and curved body. Up there on the high, wind-wasted spine of the hills.
The body and the baby, fallen into the grass. The body, the baby, the body, the baby, falling and landing and disappearing.
I have kept the hairclip. Handing it in to the police wasn’t necessary. I knew the hairclip had nothing to do with the little girl who had fallen to her death, or already dead, likely into the sea. But, within the subjective world of our home, that hairclip had instantly become a sacred relic. To throw it out felt disrespectful to Neal. And so I tucked it away in a drawer in my bedroom, where Neal would never wish to venture.
Thursday and the second thing. Two long, quiet days ago. It was a disposable camera. A child’s disposable camera, with little purple flower stickers all over it. The cardboard packaging over the black plastic casing was wrinkled with the morning’s damp. The back was flicked open, and the film exposed. It was nestled in the long grass on the sand dune humps between the beach and our lawn. It was forgotten by some child, dropped and perhaps mourned.
Neal brought it in to the dining room like he was holding a baby bird.
I looked up from my drawing with some mild confusion, but no great fascination.
“It’s a camera.”
“It was in the grass.”
“Hmmm,” I raised my eyebrows. “I didn’t think children still used actual cameras with actual film.”
He held it in front of him, an offering, or evidence. But I hadn’t caught up to his line of reasoning yet. I put my pens down and offered him lunch, a cup of tea. I told him to put the camera in the bin, since it looked ruined.
“It must be hers.” Neal shook his head.
Hers. I heard his meaning this time.
“She would have been taking photos from the plane. Up there with her Dad, all excited …”
“Neal, this could be any−”
“Don’t say it!” He hardly ever raised his voice. “Don’t say it. I know you don’t believe me.”
He shoved the camera into my hands with a little shiver. He went out the back door and I heard the car start up. I put the camera with the hairclip, beginning to feel like an enabler. Like an accomplice.
Then last night I heard his tears. I laid my hand on his bedroom door, gently but firmly, willing him to feel me there with him. Long before the plane crash, Neal had been unable to watch anything or read anything that dealt with dead children, missing children, aborted babies. He’d flick the channel during the nightly news, change the topic of a dinner conversation, quickly shut a novel and never pick it up again. It was forever an issue that plagued him, but one of which he more or less had a dignified mastery. I hadn’t seen or heard him cry since the morning of the funeral, when he had broken down briefly between the door of his house and the door of the car. He had held my arm, shaking out a long and solitary sob before, deliberately and slowly, pulling himself together. He had zipped himself up and had remained tightly in possession of his own private grief ever since.
But the body and the baby had been falling and dying for him every day. I guess I didn’t have anything comparable to see in the spectre of a downed plane.
And now Saturday, and Angela will be on time.
Neal finishes mowing the lawn. He brings the tumbler back in to the kitchen, and drinks a refill at the bench, hand on the tap, ready for more. The mint and lemon bob against his lip.
“You’ve remembered that Angela is coming up for lunch? She’ll be here about midday.” I say it as good news, casual news, but I keep my back to him.
He doesn’t respond. He knows what I am saying.
You’d like Angela, I am telling him. You’re only fifty-six, I am telling him. You should give it a try, I am telling him. But I know he’d never be interested, even if she were. And of that I’m not even sure.
He goes to his room, and I decide I will give him until 11.30 before attempting to buck him up with a speech or a plea. I arrange flowers for the side table in the hall. I open the wine and decant it into one of Neal’s fancy jugs. I open the French doors wide.
It is the first time Angela has been to visit. For one thing, I always use our catch-ups as an excuse to come to Wellington, with its art supply shops and bookstores, restaurants and galleries. But we also haven’t seen each other for several weeks: she was away at her sister’s in Brisbane; I had the flu; we were busy on different days; and so on, until time and life mounted up like laundry between us. I want her to like my new home and to understand my choice to be here. It is a slightly shy feeling, like I am wooing her for myself as well as for my brother.
Neal is a person who needs others. He should live his days with someone who loves him in the way a sister can’t. I busy my mind with that thought as I polish forks at the table, focusing on the hope and not the fear. Fear that his finding could be my losing. Socially: that I might lose him, her, both. And existentially. Will I lose my firm belief in everything I have chosen for myself, if I see love make Angela happy? Will I then forever see its lack in my own life? Will I be a spinster instead of myself? Selfishness makes my stomach hurt, and I wish I could cancel the lunch.
But then his door opens. He has a new shirt, folds ironed out. Polished shoes. He gives me a little smile, knowing that I have noticed, but merely takes his book out to the deck and ignores me. He doesn’t offer his help with the lunch preparations, maybe drawing the line at appearing too keen. I cannot be less brave than him, so I finish setting the table.
Angela arrives with a tūī. Wooden, carved and painted, delicate as though poised for flight. I am touched at the thoughtful symbolism. We exclaim, we will hang it on the wall.
Neal solemnly carries the lasagne in my capsicum-print oven mitts. He presents it on the table before Angela like he has forged her gold and silver. I am overwhelmed with love for him. But it is a wistful feeling, an embarrassed feeling. I want to leave them to it, to let Neal be attentive and charming without me watching him. I carry the salad bowl in, and we have lunch in a pool of midday sun.
“I heard about that microlight crash last week,” Angela says. Her tone is appropriate, concerned but matter-of-fact. “What a tragedy. Everyone must be talking about it, I guess.”
Neal continues to move his fork, missing only the slightest beat.
I feel myself blush. “Yes. A real tragedy.”
“That poor mother, with no body to bury.”
Silence crawls in from the lawn and encircled us. Angela quickly registers the change and is confused by it. Our eyes meet, and I give her an apologetic smile.
Neal, bless him, looks up from his lunch. “I’m sorry. The awkwardness is my fault. I’m afraid I’ve taken the accident rather personally. I’m indulging some old tragedies of my own.”
The body and the baby, falling and landing and disappearing, and rising and meeting and confronting. Love is in the naked pauses shared between each of us. It is in what is thrown up, suspended in the air. And it is in the catching.
Angela picks up her wine glass and holds it to Neal’s and then to mine, thoughtful and respectful.
“Here’s to old tragedies, long may we carry them. And here’s to new hope, long may it carry us.”
In the moment I have hoped for – when my brother might glimpse a life with more love in it – I do not feel the sadness I had secretly feared. I feel peaceful, like I am reaching over the fence and handing Angela the most precious lavender I have.
But Angela does not lower her glass when we do.
“And I hope you’ll join me in toasting my news. Believe it or not, I’ve met a man. I’m moving to Brisbane.”
Neal’s eyes do not flicker, his smile is fixed. More than fixed. His smile has generous warmth and celebration. It is for me. Love is in what is dropped.
And so much of so many things feel quite suddenly dropped.
Dusk gathers into itself, and I can no longer pretend to be absorbed in my book. Out there, beyond the sand dunes, the sea is a charcoaled blank. Anonymous and final, where the little girl sleeps. I reach for the lamp and ripple the silence enough for Neal to brave conversation.
“Feel like some leftovers?”
I say no, with a shake of the head, and thank you, with a smile. Words are bottlenecked.
“You know,” says Neal, as he potters about the drawers and the microwave, “I’m happy for Angela.” His meal begins to whir, and the kitchen glows gold. “It clearly was a bolt out of the blue for her, meeting someone and falling in love. I think it’s really brave, being open to change like that. Making room for someone in her life at this stage. I honestly don’t know if I could do it again. I thought my resistance to the idea was just loyalty to Ellen, but it’s more than that. I just wonder if I’m too set in my ways to share a life again.”
It is the longest speech I have perhaps ever heard my brother make on the subject of his feelings. He swears softly as he burns his hand on the plate of hissing lasagne, juggling it onto a folded tea towel.
“Except for sharing with you, I mean.”
Dinner becomes dishes, and dusk becomes night. Neal stretches out his legs and declares himself headed to bed. He pauses by my chair, and rests a hand on my head.
“I know you’re disappointed for me,” he says. “I appreciate it. But you don’t need to be. I’m fine, truly.”
He throws it out, it is suspended in the air, and I must catch it. I am too ashamed to correct him.
“I’m glad. Goodnight, Neal.”
First published takahe 87