I would watch through squinting eyes as Mama packed the scones and apples, the brown paper bag creased from overuse. Last week it was my lunchbox, holding Marmite sandwiches, unwrapped, for school, after incubating bananas the week before that. The week before that, when we first got it, it carried Granny Smith apples home from the corner dairy. After this day it would hold peelings and other food scraps before meeting its demise inside a council rubbish bag.
I still shudder at the thought of those Granny Smith apples. I knew Mama only bought them because they were nobody’s favourite. As a result, there was always fresh fruit on display in the house, because “It reminds me of home,” Mama would reason. The plastic hibiscuses, the tivaevae bed covers, the woven mats were other reminders.
“Why is it me who misses out on things?” I whined.
Whenever Mama pursed her lips I knew my complaints had gone too far. I also knew I wasn’t too young for the holiday programme, but that’s what she told me – that’s what she always told me. It was a lesson I’d learnt a long time before then, that my age at any age was a convenient excuse.
I watched as Mama scooped the sugar into a glass jug, adding a measured capful of orange cordial. She filled it to the brim with cold water, to get the most out of it, the clinking of spoon against jug settling the debate. But I was stubborn, like her.
“Then why can’t I stay home? I’m old enough for that.”
Every now and then Mama would let the truth slip. “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know? Who do you think we are? Rockefeller?” I didn’t know who Rockefeller was back then, but I knew staying at the house wouldn’t cost a cent.
The water in the jug turned a bright shade of kina roe, the cordial a treat the family drank when visitors came around. That was something, I supposed, and I noted the care that Mama took as she poured the drink into a thermos. In silence.
Lunch packed, we left the house, the back door left unlocked as usual. “In case family come to visit,” Mama would say. “How else are they going to get inside?” The logic in my mother’s thinking used to baffle me, but often we’d come home to an invasion of unexpected rellies.
It was too early in the day for the other children in the street, so there were no spinning Frisbees across front lawns, no bullrush tackling, no rugby rage. At the start of the school holidays the older children had set up a cricket pitch in one of the driveways. But that morning the street was empty, though I knew our neighbours were spying on us – bung-eyed Josie and nosey-parker Morgan, staring through splits in their frayed lace and bedsheet curtains.
Mama telepathically urged me to pick up the pace, the brown paper bag threatening to break with the sagging weight of scones and apples. The ring of keys that accessed the rooms at the local college clanged like heavy wind chimes in her hand.
“Stop kicking those stones. I can hear you from here.” Despite the clanging, Mama’s ears were tuned into the minutest sounds. I stopped kicking the stones, my feet dragging along the concrete.
“Stop dragging your feet. I can hear your shoes.” Again, my mother with the bionic hearing. “If you ruin those shoes,” Mama said, “too bad. Ruined shoes for the rest of the year.”
I looked down at the growing scuff marks on my Bata Bullets. Mama didn’t say it, but I heard Rockefeller’s name. I should’ve known better than to poke out my tongue.
“You better put that thing away before I come over there and put it away for you.”
I lifted my feet clear off the ground, and, just to be sure, I monitored my thoughts.
Arriving at the school, we were greeted by the pine tree saplings. I was surprised to see how much they’d grown, and self-consciously pulled at the hem of my dress. The bottom of the fabric had one or two inches left to give before I’d have to inherit another hand-me-down, already.
We climbed the footpath to the school grounds and walked through the carpark, arriving at the block of classrooms that Mama had cleaned for the past six years, the industrial block, which was opposite the admin block. I inhaled the vibrant pop art on the walls, the blues and yellows jumping off the bricks like a resuscitated heartbeat. I gasped at the sight of it, as if seeing it for the first time, my stolen breath rushing back after seconds.
The keys clanged again as Mama unlocked the building, passing me the paper bag to free up both hands. The school was deserted. No teenagers huddled in corners smoking weed and guzzling beer from stolen flagons. Only the sound of clanging keys reverberating against the concrete walls. I resented knowing other people had better things to do. I took it out on the paper bag, penetrating it with my fingernail.
The first thing Mama noticed were the scuff marks on the lino and the large, flattened cardboard used for break-dancing by the students. “Bloody kids.” The B word was as profane as my mother’s language got. I regret smiling, remembering her frozen reflection in the glass pane of the door, her lips pursed again, the edges turned down.
Mama picked up the cardboard and folded it down, while I waited for her to open the door to my favourite classroom, the art room. Once inside, I dumped the paper bag on the bench beside the door, then listened to her footsteps in the corridor.
Door number two is the room to work metal,
Door number eight cooks kai,
Door number twelve is where shapes become homes,
And lucky thirteen is where the magic begins.
I recited like a verse each door unlocking, which were locked in the same order at the end of the day. I met Mama at the storage cupboard, breathing in the scents. I found the solvents intoxicating, but not in the glue-sniffing way that Mama angsted over.
What’s wrong with you kids? Why do kids sniff glue?
Do you sniff glue?
No, Mama. Geez.
Mama refused to let me handle the cleansers and the equipment. It was one of the few times I didn’t mind my age being an excuse. So I’d stand there and watch as three buckets, two mops, one broom, one vacuum cleaner, and, finally, the buffing machine were dragged into the corridor.
The buffing machine was my favourite. It rumbled like thunder as it shimmied down the corridor, leaving behind it a trail of polish and disinfectant.
I knew the rules by heart by then:
Don’t make any more mess.
But most importantly, stay out of the way.
I returned to the art room to dream over the portfolios, curious to see how far they’d come. School C was looming so the artworks were close to finished. I had watched them flourish from rough pencil sketches into monochrome screen-prints or multicoloured paintings with the finest, most intricate brushstrokes. But I had my favourite, my Leonardo da Vinci, even though, like Rockefeller, I didn’t know who he was back then.
Bold portraits of Marilyn Monroe in shades of eye-shadow blues and pinks graced its pages. A quartet of lips, posed for kissing, teased onlookers in shades of purple. An electric guitar was breathed into life in one seamless stroke. A black kettle and pot conversed across the centrefold. I let the images transport me to an alternate reality – a reality free from disapproving mothers – when the voices in the corridor propelled me back.
“Hello, Julia.” Mama was putting on her best English.
I crept to the doorway, peering round it. Mama was at the far end of the building, this girl Julia and a man with her.
“Julia’s come into the office with me today,” said the man. “She’s helping me tidy up my paperwork. Aren’t you, button?”
I watched Julia roll her eyes.
He laughed. “She doesn’t like it when I call her “button”. Do you, button?”
Even then I knew Mama had no choice but to laugh with him. “My daughter’s here, too,” she said, gesturing towards the art room.
I recoiled into the art room, slamming shut the portfolios, straightening them up on the tables. By the time the footsteps in the corridor reached the room and the trio filled the doorway, I was inspecting the printing press for dust.
I looked up from the machine, grateful its imposing size obscured at least a part of me.
“Come here,” said Mama. “Say hello to Mr Brown and Julia.”
The man looked like an alien amongst the punnets of dried paint and artworks. His bleached shirt and perfectly creased pants like a military uniform, not something you’d wear on a day off at the office. It didn’t take a Leonardo da Vinci to know he wasn’t another cleaner.
“Mr Brown is the headmaster,” Mama explained, “and this is his daughter, Julia.”
The first thing I noticed about Julia was her hair. Unlike my own, which grew from my head like a slinky pot scrubber, Julia’s hair flowed like a waterfall, free from tangles.
Dragging my feet to the other side of the room, I silently willed them not to trip me up. With every step I took, I imagined the scuff marks on my Bata Bullets becoming more pronounced, filling the spaces on my shoes like an artist’s living canvas, creeping their way up my ankles, past my knees to my thighs like our neighbour’s tatau.
“Selena.” Mr Brown offered me a handshake. “What a lovely name.” I barely heard the compliment, still recovering from the handshake. His grip was firm.
Mama gave me a look, and I put on my best English.
“Thank you, Mr Brown.”
“You’re welcome, Selena.”
He said my name like he expected a prize for remembering it.
“Say hello to Selena, sweetheart.” My cheeks filled with shame at the forced inconvenience.
“Hello,” said Julia, and we stared at the floor.
“Selena, see if Julia wants an apple.” I could tell by Mama’s tone that she was getting impatient, having to prompt me to carry out the simplest of courtesies.
“Julia would love an apple, wouldn’t you, button?”
Julia and I stared at him.
“Selena, get the lunch bag.”
The brown paper bag. I was certain Julia never ate her lunch from a brown paper bag. Or ate day-old scones and sour apples that were nobody’s favourite. Or considered homemade orange cordial a treat. I opened the bag for her and offered her an apple. Then watched her pick one and bite into it while taking in the art pieces scattered throughout the room.
“Go outside, girls,” Mr Brown commanded. “Get some sun.”
I waited for Julia to finish her apple, let her soak up the art while she could.
“Do you play netball?”
“Really?” Julia looked surprised. “I love netball. I’m in the A-team at school. I’m the goal-shooter and captain.”
We sat outside on the steps between the industrial block and the admin block. I kicked a stone at the foot of the steps, adding another blemish to my Bata Bullets.
“Mum says she’ll take me to watch the Silver Ferns in Singapore.” Julia paused to let me consider that. “But only if my team wins its season,” she explained.
I didn’t know where Singapore was.
“Do you know where Singapore is?” she asked. “It’s in Asia, near Malaysia and Indonesia. Have you been on an airplane before?”
I had farewelled rellies at the airport and watched their planes take off from a roadside in Miramar. They’d buy me lollies from the airport shop and tell me to hide them, don’t share them, don’t let anybody steal them from me. But, no, I hadn’t been on an airplane before.
“I’ve been on an airplane seven times now.” Julia counted on her fingers, recalling each trip. “Three times to Auckland, once to Christchurch, twice to Melbourne to visit my aunt, and once to Sydney to see Gamma before she went to Heaven.”
Her voice trailed off. I noticed her glassy eyes, the way she wringed her hands. I broke the silence by launching myself off the concrete steps, landing on the grassy patch, my arms and legs splayed like a starfish. “I can do cartwheels.”
She watched me, wide-eyed, then started giggling. “Show me!” she squealed. “Your cartwheel!”
I rocked my body left to right, pausing like a well-timed comedian, urging Julia to spur me on, before tipping sideways, first on to one foot, then on to one hand, then two, until I’d done a complete rotation. I took a bow.
Julia plunged towards me, hooking arms and dragging me round the side of the admin block. “Let’s explore!”
We paused at the water fountain where we took turns for a sip, then raced through the carpark and down a bank to the rugby field. The grass was dry and the dirt like hard clay – perfect conditions for cartwheels and handstands. We picked daisies and made daisy-chains and blew at dandelions, watching the disintegrated balls carry through the wind.
I was shocked to win at knucklebones. Whenever I played with my cousins, a stone would disappear at a critical moment or somebody cheated and either way I’d lose. We dug and rummaged and collected treasures – two bottle tops, one glass bottle, one hair clip, and an old drinking straw – which Julia carried in a pouch she’d made from the upturned front flap of her dress.
I swung a dead branch at the dirt, knocking up a divot and leaving a pockmark behind one of the try lines on the field.
“What’s that?” called Julia.
I looked inside the cavity in the ground. Buried in the soil was a stone the size of a walnut. I picked it up and wiped away the dirt.
“It’s just a stone. From a peach or something.” I flicked the peach pit back at the hole. It landed softly on a nest of mown grass.
“It is? Let’s see.” Julia rushed over, her eyes wide, our collection of treasures falling to her feet. She picked up the stone and fondled it, marvelling over it as if it were crystal.
“Maybe we should plant it,” Julia said finally.
I screwed up my face, then remembered her dead grandmother. “I don’t think it will grow,” I said gently.
“It might,” Julia insisted. “It might grow. Imagine that – our very own peach tree. With all the fruit we can eat.” Her optimism was like chicken pox. “Just think,” she went on. “We can have peach pie, stewed peaches, peaches and ice cream–”
I grinned. “Chocolate-covered peaches, peach jam, peaches on pancakes–”
“Peaches on toast.” It felt good to laugh.
“Where will we plant it? Our tree, I mean,” I blushed at the prospect of owning my own fruit tree. It was stupid to believe it, but no more Granny Smith apples for life.
“Somewhere it will get plenty of sun for warmth–”
“And rain so it never gets thirsty.”
“Of course. And somewhere private to protect it from thieves–”
“But not too private that it gets lonely.”
“Good thinking. I didn’t think of that.”
I remember smiling. Somehow Julia’s approval made the dream more real. We scoured the school grounds until we ended up amongst the saplings near the main entrance.
“Perfect,” said Julia.
I agreed. There it would be exposed enough to the sun and rain so it never got cold or thirsty. And it would flourish amongst the other trees, which would keep it company and well-disguised, safe from the prying eyes of hungry students and the slippery fingers of fruit thieves.
We ran back to the field and recollected our treasures. Julia filled the empty bottle with water from the drinking fountain, while I dug a hole amongst the saplings with my stick. I placed the peach pit into the small pocket and refilled the hole with the soil. Julia poured some of the water over the tiny mound, sticking the straw, with the hair clip attached to its base to help keep it anchored, into the mound’s centre, discretely marking the spot.
We stood back and admired our work.
“What about these?” I looked down at the two bottle tops in my hand.
“Mementos,” said Julia. “We keep them as keepsakes.”
In the distance, Julia’s dad called us back.
“What on – what have you girls been doing?”
“Auē,” said Mama. “Look at you two.”
I looked down at my dress. I hadn’t noticed the mud and grass stains on it.
“Oh, Daddy!” Julia leapt towards her father, her face beaming. “Selena and me–”
“Selena and I.”
“Selena and I did cartwheels on the rugby field. We made daisy-chains and collected treasures.” She nodded at me and I reluctantly opened my hand, exposing the two metal bottle tops. “And guess what else, Daddy?”
Her father was frowning.
“We planted a tree, a peach tree – actually, it’s not a tree yet but you know what I mean – in a secret location.”
Her father raised an eyebrow.
“Well, it’s not that secret really, but I still can’t tell you where it is, I’m afraid, not that you would steal the fruit–”
“Julia,” said her dad, “you’re speaking nonsense.”
“Not nonsense, Daddy. It’s real. We’ll have peach pie and stewed peaches and peaches on pancakes and toast.”
Mama and I watched in silence.
“Look at you,” her father said. Her pink dress was covered in dirt and grass.
“No buts.” He smiled weakly at Mama and me, the pinks of his cheeks spreading out to his ears. “Say goodbye, please.”
Julia swivelled her body to face us, but she didn’t look up. Her hair had gone astray and I could see dead leaves in it. She said goodbye to our feet.
I walked over to Julia and pressed one of the bottle tops into the palm of her hand, watched her disappear into the admin block with her dad. Mama waited for me at the entrance of the industrial block and once I was inside, she let the door shut behind me.
Maria Samuela was born in Wellington, where she still lives, and is of Cook Islands descent. She’s had stories published in various journals including takahē, and read on National Radio. Her stories have appeared in anthologies Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand and A Game of Two Halves: The Best of Sport 2005-2019. She also writes for children. In 2019, her story ‘Bluey’ was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize. Since then, a couple other stories were long-listed, including The Peach Tree. She held residencies at the University Bookshop (in association with the Robert Lord Cottage) and the Michael King Writers Centre. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters. In 2022, her collection of stories, Beats of the Pa’u, was published by Te Herenga Waka University Press. She’s now working on her second book, a novel.