Heather Elder

Heather Elder has had poetry and prose published in JAAM, Takahe, Side Stream, Enamel and mamazine. She plays klezmer and Scottish fiddle, and works as a freelance technical writer, editor, and French to English translator. She lives in Johnsonville, Wellington with her husband and two daughters.

I find writing scary and have made many attempts to stop, but can’t help being drawn back to it again and again.

A Birthday

‘I’ve never had popcorn before,’ announces my mother, with a sort of mournful triumph. It’s my daughter’s sixth birthday; we’re making party snacks. At least, I’m making party snacks; I’m also trying to prevent my mother from helping. Right now she’s helping by lifting the lid of the popcorn pan in mid-fusillade: ‘I’ll just see if it’s done yet…’ Seconds later, she is leaping back – ‘Oooh, golly! What’ve I done?’ – and throwing her hands protectively in front of her face as popcorn erupts from the pan in white, knobby clouds.

‘Mum,’ I say, trying very hard to keep my voice from wobbling, ‘could you maybe go and see if Ronnie’s dressed?’

‘Oooh golly, I’d better clean this up before I get into trouble!’ she whispers, and begins trying to flick the corn off the stove top with a tea towel. The flames of the gas hob dance and dodge in the air currents she whips up; clods of corn flare red and shrink black as they’re knocked into the fire.

‘Mum,’ I say, ‘could you just mind the – Christ! Jesus, will you just give me that!’ The tea towel’s caught fire. I snatch it from her hands, dump it in the sink and turn the cold tap on full. The smoke alarm begins to shrill. I drag a chair out of the kitchen, climb up, yank the cover off the alarm and hurl the batteries into a corner of the room.

‘Oh, God,’ says my mother in a quavering voice. Three-year-old Ronnie appears in the living room doorway, her mouth a rectangle of anguish. I drop to my knees and take her into my arms:

‘It’s all right, angel. Mummy’s angel.’

I feel a hand on my shoulder. ‘She is your angel. They both are.’ I thought I’d managed to repress the urge to shrug her off, but I must have flinched or stiffened or something because she suddenly straightens up and stalks from the room. ‘Well. I know when I’m not wanted.’

She doesn’t speak to me for the rest of the afternoon. During the party, she sits scowling in a straight-backed chair while Ella’s friends wheel and tumble about her. Even when the cake is brought out – an impressive sculpture of sugar-paste sunflowers, Ella’s favourite flower, lovingly constructed by my best friend, Sally – my mother remains impassive, cramming a sausage roll mechanically into her mouth as the rest of us bellow out ‘Happy Birthday to You’. The only time my mother eats is when she’s angry.

I drop the last of the guests off, drive back home, and set to work clearing up after the party. I roam the house, stuffing rubbish bags, bending and stooping, breathing heavily through my nose, imagining myself a giantess, seven league boots clomping, arms swinging like meaty cranes. I am twelve feet tall; my shoulders stoop against the ceiling; my head sets the light swinging. Humming to myself, I slam the vacuum cleaner into the skirting boards, bang cupboard doors shut so hard that they fly open and I have to bang them shut again. Sunlight streams through the windows; I can hear shrieks from the garden – Ronnie and Ella chasing each other. I straighten up, look around me, breathe, blink myself back down to my usual size, walk through the empty house and onto the deck at the back, and let my gaze wander down onto the lawn and drift across the treetops. At the top of the macrocarpa, a sleek tui is preening itself in the autumn sun; its clucking, fluting call bounces across the gully. I take a shuddering breath in, huff it out again, then pull more air into my aching ribs. I realise I haven’t seen my mother for a while, and wonder where she’s got to.

Ella emerges from the bush and begins striding up the lawn. Her pale pink party frock’s streaked with mud. She’s alone. ‘Ella!’ She looks up, squints at me. ‘Where’s Ronnie?’

‘I don’t know. Can I have something to eat? I’m hungry!’

‘What do you mean you’re hungry – you’ve been stuffing yourself with party food all afternoon! Where’s your sister?’

She shrugs.

I suppose I’ll have to face my mother some time. I go downstairs to the guest room; she’s taken to retreating there in the afternoons when the kids have got too raucous for her, but sometimes they follow her in. Not this time though: it’s empty. I run upstairs. ‘Ella! See if you can find your gran!’ Now I’m roaming the house again, but at speed, bending, stooping, panting, arms swinging, looking under beds, into cupboards, behind curtains. ‘Ronnie! RONNIE!’

Ella appears in the doorway. ‘Mummy? I can’t find Gran.’

‘Ella! Did Ronnie go into the bush with you? I can’t find her!’

Her brow sags, darkly, and the lower lip comes up to meet it. ‘No. She was annoying me, so I told her to go away. She’s so annoying!’

‘Where did she go?’ Shrug. I kneel down and grab her shoulders. ‘Did she go out with Gran?’ Another shrug, although tears are beading along her lower lids.

I send her next door to check with the neighbours: Mrs Lee hasn’t seen her, and there’s no answer at the flats on the other side. I head out of the front gate and, not knowing what else to do, break into a run, down the hill towards the school, only half-noticing Ella at my heels. Now I’m screaming – ‘RONNIE! RONNIE!’– hearing my feet flap along the pavement, feeling the impact slam up through my hip joints, my arms flailing at my sides.

As I turn the corner into the school, I see a tiny figure hanging, one-handed, from the top of the big kids’ climbing frame, feet dangling three metres above the ground. I thud to a halt beneath them, just as her fingers slip reluctantly from the bar. She slams into me, knocking me onto my back. We lie together on the rubber safety mat, arms around each other. After a few minutes, she starts to wriggle free.

We slog back up the hill, Ron hanging painfully from my neck, Ella still dogging my footsteps, thumb in mouth. When we get in, my mother is sitting in semi-darkness in front of the six o’clock news. The volume is almost painful but I’m too tired for a confrontation, so I usher the kids into the kitchen. ‘Who wants fish fingers?’

She comes in behind me. ‘Can I do anything to help?’ Her voice sounds strangled, as though she’s forcing the words out.

I turn to face her. ‘Where did you go?’

‘Where did I go? I just went for a walk. I wanted to get out from under your feet. I went up the road to – where is it? Crofton Park?’

‘Churton. Churton Park. Were you aware that Ron had wandered off? We were looking everywhere for her! I was worried sick! I didn’t know whether you’d taken her out or what had happened?’

‘Was I aware …? OK, love. Was I aware? No, I wasn’t aware. I wasn’t aware of anything.’

‘Never mind,’ I say, ‘never mind – we found her down the road at the school. No harm done. Move on.’

‘Oh when you lot were kids you used to wander off all the time,’ she says. ‘We didn’t worry so much in those days – we just let you get on with it.’

The next day, I drive her to the airport. Ella’s at school, so my mother climbs eagerly into the back seat next to Ronnie, leaving me alone in the front. She spends the twenty-minute drive fussing over Ron, petting her, drinking her fill.

‘Oooh, I’m going to miss you! I am, you know. I feel so sad!’

She turns down the corners of her mouth, clown-like, to demonstrate. Ron frowns at her.

‘I feel like I’ve got a big hole, right here!’ She points to her frail chest. Ron’s face relaxes; she giggles.
‘Gran, why have you got a hole in your tummy? You haven’t got a hole in your tummy! That’s silly!’

I pull into to the drop-off zone and haul her bag out of the boot. I lean down awkwardly to kiss her goodbye and she reaches up with her skinny arms and grips me ferociously around the neck.

‘Take care of yourself,’ she says, peering into my eyes.

‘I will,’ I say, and I get back into the car and drive off, and because it’s a clear, sunny autumn day, I take Ron to Oriental Parade and buy her an ice cream, and I sit on the beach and dig my toes into the sand and listen to the waves and to Ron’s shrieks as, arms outstretched, she chases the gulls.

Back home, I go down to the spare room to strip the bed. There’s a brown paper package sitting on it, labelled FOR THE GIRLS!! I open it, and two hand-knitted jumpers tumble out. They’re both the same size, knitted in a bobbly moss stitch. When I hold one of them up to the light, the sleeves tumble down like vines – they’re easily long enough for an infant gibbon. There’s a dropped stitch down the front, and the lumpiness of the stitching around the collar, along with the fleshy, keloid pink colour of the wool, look like scarring.

I text Sal: Is there such a thing as passive-aggressive knitting? She texts back. LOL. She gone yet? I sit on the bed, turning the thing over and over, scrutinising it, wondering whether my mother finished it in haste so she could leave it here when she went home, or just because she grew tired of knitting it. I hold it up to my face, squint at it, trying to find a loose end, wondering if it would be too mean of me just to unravel the thing and start again, remake the jumpers so that they’ll fit the girls, or make something entirely different – some peggy squares for a blanket, or a couple of scarves.

I put the jumpers on the girls’ beds and call the girls. ‘El! Ron! Gran’s left a present for you!’ They run in and snatch the jumpers with delight, pull them over their heads. Find the too-long sleeves hilarious. Chase each other around the house flapping them at each other and giggling, pretending to be ghosts. I follow them, and while they’re not looking, I take a picture on my phone and attach it to an email to my mother. ‘Your beautiful granddaughters’, I write in the subject line.