Authors: Tammy Robinson
Everything looks different in this weak autumn light. When I first walked
the door I was confused; it seemed...unfamiliar, and it took me a minute to realise why. Growing up, I spent every summer in this beach house, bar one. The summer I turned ten was a summer of tears, loud voices and slammed doors, as my parent’s marriage unravelled. I spent most of that summer sheltered under the canopy of the vast silkwood tree outside our kitchen window, staying out of the way. Wishing I was here.
Then I finished school and started work and long summers were a thing of the past, so I’ve never been here in any other season. Its late autumn now, the cusp of winter. The beach house is a pale washed out version of itself. Ghosts of parties, BBQ’s, and warm summer nights linger. Laughter echoes through the rooms. Dramatic, yeah I know, but I can hear it.
Gran was right. This is exactly
where I should be
I unpack, which doesn’t take too long as I’ve never been one for hanging clothes neatly or folding them organised into drawers. Most of my clothes I leave in the suitcase; in my typical fashion I have packed for all seasons and any possible occasion. When I thought I would need the turquoise satin gown I wore to my school ball is unclear, but it’s here if I do.
Back in the kitchen I run the tap for a few minutes, let the pipes clear themselves, just the way my gran always does. A glass of water goes someway to reviving me, but only a little. My whole body is still so sore; I’m twenty
but move like a ninety year old.
My gran is nearly eighty now, but walks and moves like a fifty year old. She’s on her third husband. Love, she says, is everything. Her second husband left her this Beach house after he died. I only have very dim memories of him, he died when I was two, but I think he was the one she loved the most. He died in December, and every year when we are here she lights a candle for him, sheds a tear, and whispers a prayer to the
. Her present husband, Ted, is a pretty easy going guy. He lost his wife after fifty years of marriage so he understands. There’s room in your heart to love more than one person, my Gran often says, while he smiles at her fondly.
The beach house is dated, a typical kiwi beach house. Worn weatherboard exterior, a kind of mustard yellow colour, faded by the sun and worn by the salt spray from the ocean, which laps right out front. Inside the decor is eclectic. Rooms are furnished in a
fashion, depending on Gran’s mood at the time. My favourite piece of furniture in the whole house is a dressing table in Gran’s room. Crafted from old driftwood and decorated with shells and barnacles, it looks like something the sea threw up. When I was young I used to run my hands over the shells and the curves of the wood, imagining that it came from a mermaid princess’s house under the sea.
My phone beeps a message, service fades in and out here, and when I see who it’s from I push delete without reading it. My mother is puzzled as why to I’ve come here, she doesn’t know, no one does, except for gran, and only because she was there when it started, took me to the hospital, rubbed my back, watched me cry.
Go to the beach house, she said. Go to the beach house and take some time for yourself. You need to face your grief front on, embrace it, deal with it, and then let it go.
So ok, I’m here.
Now heal me.
He’s started hiding the sugar again. I went to make us both a cup of coffee around 10am and it was nowhere to be found.
“Pete”, I asked smoothly, “have you seen the sugar jar?”
He didn’t answer, just muttered something under his breath and looked suspiciously at me sideways.
It first happened about eight months ago, him hiding the sugar. It’s when we found out his mind was going. He had his reasons for the odd way he started behaving, (as well as the sugar he cut cardboard boxes up and taped them over the windows, blacking out the shop somewhat), and the reason was he thought we were back in war times (“sugar is a luxury! Not to be squandered!”).
He started shouting at anyone who spoke with even a trace of an accent to get out of the shop.
“They’re the enemy!” he would shout when I tried to calm him down, “come here to spy on us boy, don’t you see!”
His family took him to the doctor who said his mind was regressing or going or something like that, and he really should go into an old people’s home because it was only going to get much, much worse, but he refused.
So I’m tasked with, ironically, being their spy. Letting them know what’s happening and if I ever think it gets to the stage where he’s a danger to himself or others then I’m to let them know and they will have him committed. It’s a pretty big ask of me really, a twenty three year old guy whose biggest responsibility up till now has been a rabbit when I was eight, and they’re pretty easy going really. I have no idea what sort of ‘dangerous’ behaviour I should be looking out for from Pete. I’m fairly certain hiding the sugar is harmless though.
Pete owns the book/lotto shop where I’ve worked since I was thirteen, on weekends and summers while at high school and then full time since I graduated; a going on three year temporary step while I figure out what my next move is. The big Overseas Experience? Uni
? Neither particularly appeals.
The shop is imaginatively called Pete’s Books, but as the big chain shops, the Paper Plus’s and Whitcoulls have so far not invaded our small town, we do alright. It’s located between a fish ‘n chip shop and an art gallery of sorts, run by a lady named Julie who has bright red dyed hair and wears colourful kaftans all the time, because she thinks it makes her look artistic and eccentric, but really she just looks like a big beach ball. I have no idea how she stays afloat because I’ve never seen her sell anything,
, but she’s been there for a long time
so must be doing something right
The fish ‘n chip shop also sells greasy Indian takeaways, and it plus the liquor shop on the corner go some way to explaining the extra padding around my waist, and the acne that sometimes erupts on my chin. Even if I make an effort not to eat it, say for a month, I still get the acne. Pete thinks the grease drifts through the air, lands on my face. The thought makes me squeamish.
I find the sugar where he’s stashed it, the same place as last time, behind the magazine rack in the toilet. When I take him his coffee he’s back, his mind is on its normal curve, he’s in 201
again. It’s really quite intriguing to watch, although sad
cause I’ve known him so long. He’s like the grandfather I never knew, both of mine dying when I was very young. Occasionally I’ve thought maybe I should study some kind of psychology or psychiatry or some other mind thing, but I can’t be bothered, to be honest. I didn’t much like school the first time round, and the thought of willingly spending five, six or however many years it takes to get a degree, and racking up a huge student loan that would then take me the majority of my adult life to pay off,
the shit of out me.
My job is boring. My life is fairly boring. I have no love life to speak of, (and I’m not sure any of my limited past
experiences count for much).
I’m treading water,
going nowhere, seeking nothing. Waiting for something to find me.
My first night in the beach house is therapeutic, even though I don’t sleep much. The sound of the waves breaking outside has always soothed me, and I lay there listening to them for hours, watching the moon turn my room and the air a luminescent blue. Towards dawn I must have drifted off because I wake sometime after midday, stretch, my soul a little stroked.
There is an inside shower in the bathroom, but I decide to use the outside one, connected to the house hot water supply, there for my cousins and I to wash the salty sea and sand off our bodies before we were allowed inside. It’s just to the right of the house, cased in four faded wooden walls that don’t quite meet the ground, and open to the sky. The floor is rough concrete, and angled slightly to allow the water and soap bubbles to drain away and soak into the lawn. I’ve always loved showering out here, especially at night with the stars twinkling down on my head.
Afterwards, hungry, I realise I have forgotten to think the packing process through thoroughly. Food is something the ‘adults’ always brought to the beach house. And even though now I’m technically one of them, (or a pre-adult, according to my friend Kelly, who says you don’t become a proper adult until you turn twenty five) it just didn’t even cross my mind. There’s about a million tins of peaches, creamed rice, and baked beans in the pantry, (gran likes to be prepared for natural disasters), and some wine in the fridge, but that’s about it.
So reluctantly I bung on jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt, decide my hair will pass and go out foraging.
This town is like any other small coastal town in New Zealand. You drive in over a bridge which has naked
children diving and bombing into the river below. When I was young they used to wave and grin cheekily as you drove past; these days, they’re more likely to give you the finger and shout obscenities. Oh the times they are a changing, and all that. The river leads to the sea and fisherman with chilly bins and roll your own cigarettes fish the mouth, morning noon and night. Some even with rods made from wood or bamboo, Kiwi ingenuity at its best. The pub, sponsored by a brewery (Tui, Lion Red or Speight’s are the most common) is a meeting point for locals, and they hold darts nights on Thursdays and handle draws on Tuesdays. The fish n chip does a steady trade, especially on nights Monday through Sunday. They have the best beer batter for miles although they do tend to salt heavily. The dairy on the corner is owned by Indians, a friendly family who distrust all teenagers as potential shoplifters so have cameras and reflective mirrors installed in every nook and cranny.
Towns like this are usually described by magazines and local councils as quaint, peaceful, best small town in the country! By the kids who had to grow here as boring or a shithole. They liked it when summer came and town was flooded by us ‘city people’ or jafa’s as people from Auckland were known (Just Another Fucken Aucklander). More people to play with. Drink with. Hook up with.
I had my first kiss in this town, on the beach, New Years Eve eight years ago. I have no idea who he was, it was pitch black and I had a few cheap drink mixes under my belt, (you know the sort, fluorescent colours, 5% alcohol content, various fruit flavours) but I don’t mind not knowing, it was pretty gross. He had squishy lips and a hard tongue that kept darting into my mouth determinedly. I nearly bit it off twice, choking after he thrust his tongue a bit too far down my throat. He also was the first to feel me up, his hands squeezing my budding breasts, tentatively at first, then in a weird pulling motion like they were cow’s udders and he was trying to milk them. It didn’t hurt, but it certainly didn’t feel pleasant like I thought it was supposed to.
My cousin Tania, a year older, was way more experienced at that sort of thing. She’d lost her virginity to a blond surfer guy in the sand dunes the summer before while I sat nearby talking awkwardly and loudly to his sullen and acne dotted friend, who clearly had no interest in me in that way, to drown out the sounds of their lovemaking. Tania had read the same Mills and Boons books belonging to Gran that I had, so there was lots of, “harder! faster!” and “ yes...Yes....oh god YES!” It was awkward to say the least, but I was insanely jealous she’d got there first.
The beach house sits on a large section at the top of a hill, near the end of a long
along the coastline. While the beach house itself is worth practically nothing the section is worth nearly a million, not that Gran has any interest in selling.
It’s a good forty minute leisurely walk into the shop part of town, and I would normally
rive but today I decide I need the air and the exercise. It’s bracing, there’s an icy wind blowing in off the ocean that makes me gasp and stings my cheeks a little but after everything that’s happened lately I like it, it makes me feel alive. I’m happy to just feel anything again.
You can easily tell which ones are the holiday homes and which are the homes of the permanent residents. The holiday homes are all closed up snug for winter, curtains
and heavy salt rusted
padlocks on the gates. Most of them, like Gran, pay one of the local guys to mow the lawns a few times throughout winter, just to keep up appearances. Even this late in autumn there’s a patchwork of colourful trees lining the road; purple, orange, red, shades of brown. I walk past a
paddock and a group of sheep are huddled in one corner, stamping the ground in an effort to keep warm.
A lone goat
, his beard matted and dark with mud,
has laid claim to the kennel, the only real shelter.
He is perched on top, chewing thoughtfully, king of his domain.
I can smell wood fire in the air which reminds me that winter and its chills are only just around the corner. I shiver.