Elizabeth Knox

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Tata Beach, New Years Eve, 1974.


imageThree weeks without rain. The motels have had a water tanker in, but all the locals are toughing it out. The air at sea level is hazy with evaporation and the black grid-work of the oil rig they’re building in the shelter of the Bay has disappeared completely. I’m on the beach with David MacDonald, my same age cousin, who didn’t do well in School C and is going into the army next year. We can only spend time together now if we have an occupation of some sort. A project. We’re building a trap. David’s done all the digging. We’ve covered the pit with criss-crossed sticks, then newspaper, and a layer of sand. My job has been to imagine what’ll it’ll be like when our older sisters Mary and Steph come back from their walk and fall into it.

Mum appears and says, ‘Don’t wander off, Elizabeth. Auntie Thel will need another pair of hands.’ Then she wades into the waist high grass of the empty lot and lies down. We wait for a bit, and then go over. Mum looks comfortable, if incongruous. She says, ‘I won’t take sides.’ Then, ‘Let’s see if anyone misses me.’ David and I understand that we’re party to an experiment and mustn’t spoil it for her. We go back and check the beach. No Steph and Mary. David is sick of waiting and tells me to go get our little sisters. ‘Lure them in’. He demonstrates by walking towards the trap, more upright than he ever is, like he’s practicing for the army. I hurry off.

Dad, Uncle Jim and Uncle Colin have been out in the trailer sailer. They must be back because there’s an eel on the lawn in front of the old bach, cut up into big segments, which are still twitching as if trying to swim away into the shade under the lemon tree.

The kids are in the bach. They’re playing a game with toys. I climb up on the top bunk to watch. One of the girls’ dolls has been murdered, and the teddy and golly are taking turns having sex with the body. I ask, ‘Where do you get this stuff?’ and Sara says, ‘Its called necrophilia. Mary read me a bit out of a book.’ This is an answer, but really I want to know something else, that can’t be explained just by tracing it back to a book. Margaret is only going along with her friend. But Sara’s been shocked and is trying to outstrip her shock by fearlessly flaunting the most preposterously horrible thing she can think of, to be big and electric, like a little cat with all its fur standing on end. It worries me so I say, ‘Let’s go down to the beach and build a trap to catch Steph and Mary!’ The trap is built already and I want one of them to fall into it, but my insincere invitation has got to be better than these made-up atrocities. But they just shake their heads. Because they have a witness the game is getting worse, so I leave them to it.

I gravitate to the house we’re renting. I still have the habit of going to Dad for reassurance. The day isn’t exactly riddled with darkness but there was necrophilia, and a too-lively dead eel, and a human voice among the cicadas saying ‘Let’s see if anyone misses me.’

Dad’s lying down. His back is sore. He says he was stupid. When they got to Ururoa he jumped out into the shallows with the anchor in his arms. I test how bad he is by trying to worry him. ‘Mary and Steph have been out since before breakfast.’ Dad doesn’t even look interested, so I let him be.

Auntie Thel sends me along the road to Auntie Joan’s to borrow another steamer. Auntie Joan and uncle Jim Campbell came to Tata about a year ago after several happy summer holidays. Joan doesn’t have to clean schools any more. ‘I’m a lady of leisure now,’ she says as she fixes me a G & T, my first. She lets me search her bookcase. ‘Your mother was always a reader. She used to make us keep the light on till she’d finished her book.’  ‘By force of will?’ I ask, since that would be a story about my mother with a good forecast for me in it. ‘Oh no,’ says Joan, ‘Her bed was beside the light switch.’

Auntie Joan tells me my oldest cousin Andrew got badly sunburned hitching home from at a rock concert up north. ‘You should pop your head around his door and say hello.’
Andrew is lying very still, like Dad. He speaks softly and slowly. His adventures aren’t spilling, only seeping out of him. I listen to some stories about Black Sabbath, and then I take the steamer, and my gin buzz, and a book, The Egg and I, and go back along the road.

Uncle Colin is in the driveway. ‘Have you seen your mother?’
I shake my head and try to think what I can ask that will get him to say something she’ll overhear. If she’s even still there. She might have brushed her self off and gone back to our house, where she’ll be standing at the sink filling a hot water bottle for Dad’s back.

But Dad is up, shucking paua in the MacDonald’s kitchen. Thel says, ‘I have another job for you, Elizabeth.’ Mary would say, ‘What if I don’t want a job?’ Clever and quizzical. Or, if it was Mum asking, ‘Oh, a job. Anyone think you were giving me a present!’ According to Mary making fussy preparations is conventional–something women only do to show off to each other.

Thel sends me down to the garage where there’s a moulie clamped to the workbench. I spend to next hour feeding Paua and onion into the hopper, and winding the handle, to make a glistening black rope. The bowl is full of minced paua when Joan arrives and tells me to wash my hands and fetch my grandmother.

Grandma is living in a bach at the very top of the lagoon. There’s a sand track between the water and people’s gardens. On my way there I see a weka, and a weasel. Grandma is ready. She smoothes her Osti Frock and says that she’s put on her ‘plumb gown’ for ‘the festivities’. She tells me she likes my hair tied back. I don’t want to be complimented. I hate having dirty hair.

Almost everyone is gathered under the young birches. Sara and Margaret squeaking excitedly about how David fell into someone’s s trap. He winks at me over their heads. Mary and Steph are back. They were trapped by the tide and their clothes are covered in brown gorse prickes. Andrew is sitting with David. They’re both boys but Andrew doesn’t have any idea what to ask about motorbikes, and David can’t get a handle on the rock festival Ngaruawahia. They settle on discussing whether Andrew should pop his sunburn blisters. The aunts are whispering. This is odd. They haven’t been completely comfortable with each other since Joan moved to the beach. Dad likes to say that the Campbell’s and MacDonalds are feuding, which is a sophisticated history joke. Grandma remarks on Margaret’s stringy hair. Mary says ‘We all have stringy hair but only Elizabeth minds’. There’s a gap where Mum might say, ‘Elizabeth likes to take care of her appearance.’ The gap is very strange.

Then Uncle Colin pipes up to promise that we’ll all go to the Takaka river tomorrow to wash.

Once I’ve polished off two sausages and a fritter I go to fetch Mum. But where she was lying there’s a goat. It’s tethered by a long chain to a metal stake. It looks at me with eyes like coin slots in a phone box. One of those eyes should be a coin return button, since the phone is ringing and no one is picking up.

Then I spot Mum walking along the tideline, beach-combing. When I reach her she tips a handful of cats-eyes into my shirt pocket. She comes with me, only pausing to pull all the sticks out of the slumped trap and kick the sand back till it’s not a hole, only a hollow, and no one will step into it and hurt themselves.


On New Years Day, 1975 we take all the cars and drive to the river, in our togs, and with our bathroom bags. I go upstream of everyone so that I can rinse in the cleanest water. And that’s how come I can look up now to follow my floating lather and see them all, in the river and on the riverbank, everyone washing, except the kids, who are swimming but who will stay in longer and be clean enough. There they all are, still, the three families, downstream.





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